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Marc Chagall 

and the Je>vish Theater 


Digitized by the Internet Arciiive 

in 2012 witii funding from 

IVIetropolitan New York Library Council - METRO 

Marc Chagall 

and the Jevs^ish Theater 

Marc Chagall 

and the JevN^ish Theater 


©The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 
New York, 1992 
All rights reserved 

Reproductions of cat. nos. 1-7 

© State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow 

Marc Chagall and the Je>vish Theater 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 
September 23, 1992-January 17, 1993 

The Art Institute of Chicago 
January 30-May 7, 1993 

ISBN: 0-89207-099-4 

Published by the Guggenheim Museum 

1071 Fifth Avenue 

New York, New York 10128 

Prmted m the United States by Thorner Press 

Front cover: 

Marc Chagall, M/isk, 1920 
Tempera and gouache on canvas 
212.4 ^ I03-5 cm (83 V« X 40 V4 inches) 
State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow 

Back cover: 

Marc Chagall, Loi'e on the Stage. 1920 
Tempera and gouache on canvas 
284.2 X 249.6 cm (in 7s x 98 'A inches) 
State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow 


Emblem of the Jewish Chamber Theater, taken from 

a 1919 poster printed in Petrograd. 

Color photography: 

Cat. nos. 1-7, from State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow; 
nos. I, 2 photo H. Preisig; no. 3 courtesy Fondation 
Pierre Gianadda; nos. 4-7 photographed by Lee 
Ewing. Cat. nos. 8, 9, 11, 14, from Musee national d'art 
moderne. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; photo 
Philippe Migeat, © Centre G. Pompidou. Cat. nos. 10, 
12, 13, 15-20, from the collection of Ida Chagall, Paris. 
Cat. nos. 21—32, from Solomon R. Guggenheim 
Museum; no. 24 photographed by Myles Aronowitz; 
no. 29 by Lee Ewing; nos. 21, 31, 32 by Carmelo 
Guadagno; nos. 21-23, 2.5—28, 30 by David Heald. 

This exhibition has been sponsored, in part, by 
Lufthansa German Airlines. 


Additional support has been provided by 
The Helena Rubinstein Foundation. 

Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater 



Thomas Krens 


h/rii K. Korolev 


Sponsor's Statement 

jiirgm Weber 


Jeiuujer Bleising 

Chagall's Auditorium: 

"An Identity Crisis of Tragic Dimensions' 

S/i.saii C ODiptoii 

Chagall: Postmodernism and 
Fictional Worlds in Painting 

Benjamin Harshav 

Catalogue to the Exhibition 


Texts and Documents 

Edited by Benjamin Harshav 

Translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav 



Benjamin Harshav 


Gregory Veitsman 

Alan- Chagall and the Jewish Theater appears at the Gu^'genheim 
Museum SoHo while The Great Utopia: The R/issian and Soviet 
Avant-Garde, ipi$-ip^2, the comprehensive exhibition of one of 
the principal Modernist movements of the twentieth century, is 
on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The Great 
Utopia presents the fruits ot the avant-garde's attempt to 
restructure an entire society — economically, socially, and 
culturally — in the face of a tremendous political upheaval, the 
Russian Revolution. Artists became integral participants in 
the formation ol the Soviet government. They also strove to 
create new forms for art and utilitarian objects that would 
function purposefully to bring about and encourage change. 
Stranded in Russia during a visit with his fiancee before World 
War I, Marc Chagall participated in revolutionary debates 
about art and politics. He was appointed the Commissar of Art 
for the region of Vitebsk and founded an art academy and 
museum in his official capacity. At the academy, Chagall's 
teachings were challenged by Kazimir Malevich, who 
succeeded in convincing the school's students of the primacy of 
his Suprematism. The Great Utopia serves as an excellent 
background for Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater by 
providing the context within which Chagall, in 1920, 
undertook his commission for the State Jewish Chamber 
Theater. Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater, in turn, can be 
viewed as a counterpoint to The Great Utopia in that it presents 
the work of an artist whose methods of representation, 
enigmatic symbolism, and abstract individualist ideology left 
him at odds with many of his fellow artists and hastened his 
departure from Russia. 

These exhibitions have been both blessed and plagued by 
the myriad changes in the former Soviet Union. The opening 
of previously restricted archives and the willingness to 
cooperate with Western scholars and institutions have led to a 
wealth of new studies on the pre- and postrevolutionary 
periods and to exhibitions of works that may not have been 
removed from storage in the Soviet Union, much less been lent 
to museums in other countries. An exhibition of Chagall's 
murals for the Jewish Theater was unthinkable a few short 
years ago. The rapidity of change in the Russian political 
situation in recent years created unique logistical and technical 
difficulties that had to be overcome. Without the dedicated 
commitment of our Russian partners, as well as of many 
individuals and institutions in Europe and the United States, 
this show would not be possible. 

We are most indebted to lurii Korolev, Director of the State 
Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow, and his staff Among them, Lidiia 
Romashkova, Chief Registrar and Deputy Director, played a 
key role. The Tret'iakov Gallery has cared for Chagall's seven 
murals for the Jewish Theater since 1950, when they were 
admitted to the museum. These paintings would not be on 
display today without the meticulous restoration work led by 
Aleksei Kovalev, Director of the Restoration Department, and 
his team, including Leonid Astafev and Galina lushkevich. 

The participation of Evgenii Sidorov, the Minister of 

Thomas Krem 

Culture of the Russian Federation, was vital to the success of 
the project. 

A number of collectors and institutions were extremely 
generous in agreeing to lend us important works with the short 
notice that resulted from our scheduling requirements. 
Madame Ida Chagall, daughter of the artist, selflessly lent nine 
sketches from her collection. Our exhibition would be 
incomplete without these essential works related to the 
commission for the Jewish Theater. We must also thank Meret 
Meyer, Ida Chagall's daughter, for facilitating the transmission 
of photographs. The contribution of Franz Meyer, the author of 
the artist's first catalogue raisonne, was indispensable to the 

The Musee national dart moderne. Centre Georges 
Pompidou, Paris lent additional theater drawings, including 
the preparatory sketch for the Guggenheim's Green Violinist. 
We offer our special thanks to Dominique Bozo, President of 
the Centre Georges Pompidou, and Germain Viatte, the Musee 
national d'art moderne's Director. Additional assistance was 
offered by Curator Didier Schulmann, who is compiling the 
Chagall catalogue raisonne for the museum, and Collection 
Registrar Viviane Faret, who helped us navigate the loan 
procedures for the popular works. 

The State Bakhrushin Museum, Moscow, under the 
direction of Valerii Gubin, lent four sketches by Chagall's 
contemporaries who designed productions for the Jewish 
Theater. We have been the beneficiaries of this museum's 
profound contribution to the preservation and restoration of 
theatrical objects from the early Soviet period, including an 
extensive archive of documentary material. The Central State 
Archive for Literature and Art, Moscow, directed by Natal'ia 
Volkova, generously lent rare 1920s posters for the theater, 
among them an important broadsheet believed to be the first 
poster mentioning Chagall. 

In 1991, the murals were exhibited en suite for the first time 
in the West, at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, 
Switzerland, which sponsored their restoration. We must thank 
the foundation's President Leonard Gianadda as well as 
Christoph Vitali, Director of the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. 
Their institutions' exhibitions and catalogues provided both 
inspiration and substantial new material on Chagall's murals. 
Mr. Vitali lent the Guggenheim numerous historical 
photographs and provided important technical advice. 

Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater might never have been 
realized without the assistance of Lufthansa German Airlines 
and its Chairman, Jiargen Weber. Nicolas V. Iljine, Manager of 
Public Affairs, arranged and coordinated extensive 
transportation services, and his enthusiastic interest 
throughout the show's development was a continuously 
important source of encouragement. Through his capable 
offices we were able to obtain much of the documentary 
material that is the basis of the informational component of the 
exhibition. Additional support was provided by the Helena 
Rubinstein Foundation, for which we are grateful. 

Preface and 

Valentin Rivkind, Deputy Director ot the Vuchetich All- 
Union Artistic Production Association (VUART), Moscow, was 
instrumental in securing all loans of art from Russia, a very 
complicated task due to the volatile political and economic 
situation. The assistance and enthusiasm of Zel'fira Tregulova, 
art expert and Deputy Chief of the exhibition department at 
VUART, was fundamental to the realization of this project. She 
was a model of efficiency and grace under pressure. 

Marc Chagall 6jnd the Jewish Theater has profited from the 
initiatives taken by Russian scholars. Aleksandra Shatskikh's 
extensive research into the life and work of Chagall is amply 
demonstrated by her contributions to the Schirn Kunsthalle 
Frankfurt's catalogue. Our knowledge of the commission for 
the Jewish Theater has been greatly enriched by her work. We 
are also grateful to Zara Abdulaeva for her research on the 
Jewish Theater, which we relied upon for the production 
history presented in the exhibition. 

Christiane Bauermeister of Ost-West-Kultur facilitated 
communication between various parties in Russia and New 
York. In Moscow, we benefited from the participation of Rada 
Abdulaeva, Liubov' Chistiakova, Irina Duksina, Matvei Geizer, 
Natal'ia lakimova, Boris Karad'ev, Tat'iana Klim, Elena 
Korenevskaia, Alia Lukanova, Rada Mamedova, Vjatscheslaw 
Nechaev, Anait Oganessian, Igor Pal'min, Il'ia Plotkin, 
Ekaterina Seleznova, Mikhail Shvydkoi, and Boris Zingerman. 
We also received help from Aleksei Bessobrasov, St. 
Petersburg; Natan Fedorowskii, Berlin; David Hasan, 
Helsinki; Sam Norich, New York; and Elena Rakitin, 

The dedication of and sheer hard work by Guggenheim 
staff members made this exhibition possible. In spring 1992, a 
team was created to bring the exhibition to fruition, which 
included Michael Govan, Deputy Director, and Maryann 
Jordan, Director of External Affairs, who quickly began to 
mobilize the museum's resources. 

Jennifer Blessing, Assistant Curator for Research, 
spearheaded the curatorial organization of the exhibition. She 
was ably assisted by Emily Locker, Project Research Assistant, 
whose Russian-language skills and meticulous attention to 
detail were a tremendous asset. At crucial moments. Carmen 
Gimenez, Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, participated in 
loan negotiations; and Jane Sharp, Project Associate Curator for 
The Great Utopia, lent her expertise to the Chagall show when 
needed. Sharon Corwin, Curatorial Intern, solved numerous 
problems of logistics during her short summer tenure. 

The Technical Services staff, headed by Pamela Myers, 
Administrator for Exhibitions and Programming, took on the 
task of designing, planning, and mounting this exhibition in 
six short months. Peter Costa, Senior Museum Technician, was 
key to its installation. Andrew Law Simons, associate designer, 
designed the didactic component of the exhibition; he also 
designed the the catalogue based on a format by Massimo 
Vignelli. The commitment of the Publications Department, 
led by Anthony Calnek, Managing Editor, was no less essential 

to the success of this project. Despite numerous other 
obligations, Mr. Calnek, Laura Morris, Assistant Editor, and 
Jennifer Knox, Editorial Assistant, responded to their labors 
with fortitude and good spirits. 

Paul Schwartzbaum, Assistant Director for Technical 
Services and Chief Conservator, was involved in the exhibition 
from its inception. His expertise in overseeing the care of the 
murals and in negotiating technical issues has been 
indispensable. Jan Adlmann, Director of Special Programs, 
organized the symposium Two Lectures/New Insights: Marc 
Chagall's Jewish Theater Project in conjunction with the 92nd 
Street Y Among the many other staff members who made 
contributions were Lynne Addison, Associate Registrar, who 
handily took over the responsibilities of the exhibition 
midstream after joining the museum, and Heidi Rosenau, the 
Public Affairs Coordinator responsible for the Chagall 
exhibition, who discharged her duties with intelligence and 

Finally, we owe our thanks to this catalogue's contributors, 
who committed themselves to the project despite our short 
deadlines. Dr. Susan Compton, the eminent Chagall specialist, 
and Dr. Benjamin Harshav, J. and H. Blaustein Professor of 
Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale University, have 
made immeasurable contributions to Chagall scholarship. 
Barbara Harshav translated, with Dr. Harshav, the extensive 
selection of primary texts included herein. Gregory Veitsman, 
former Assistant Director for Technical Services at the State 
Tret'iakov Gallery, shares his recollections of Chagall in the 

— Thomas Krens 
Director, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation 

Preface and Acknowhdgimnti 1 ix 


The monumental murals Marc Chagall created in 1920 for the 
State Jewish Chamber Theater in Moscow (GOSEKT) were the 
last works the master made in his native land. His artistic 
achievement was immediately recognized by critics and art 
scholars. Therefore, after the theater was closed in 1949, it was 
no accident that the State Tret'iakov Gallery, the country's 
leading museum, acquired the panels for their permanent 
collection. There, cared for by restorers and curators, the 
murals were kept on drums because of their large size. They 
were unrolled to check for damage on a regular but infrequent 
basis because of the fragility of their backing and paint layers. 
When the artist visited the Tret'iakov Gallery in 1973, he was 
delighted by the careful treatment the murals had received, 
and he signed and dated them at that time. Until perhaps the 
late 1960s, he had not even known that the works had survived. 

During the many years the murals were in storage our 
experts could only undertake measures to protect the panels. 
There was no possibility of restoration, and there was nowhere 
large enough to display them in the museum's old exhibition 
galleries. When the museum underwent major reconstruction 
and plans were made to expand exhibition space, the question 
of displaying kinds of paintings never shown before arose. We 
wrestled with the difficulties of restoring and exhibiting such 
works as Chagall's theater panels and Vrubel's panel Priucess 
Gnzci. The singular history of Chagall's murals — including 
their creation in the extreme conditions of postrevolutionary 
Russia, the nature of their materials (tempera and gouache on 
thin linen), their subsequent fate determined by dramatic 
twists and turns such as the theater's move from Bol'shoi 
Chernyshevskii Lane to Malaia Bronnaia Street, and the far- 
from-ideal storage conditions from 1938 through the war — 
was reflected in their appearance. The restorers had to deal 
with wrinkling of the backing, weak threads holding the 
damaged parts of the linen together, scratches, and large areas 
where the paint was missing or flaking. They also had to 
reinforce Chagall's canvas. This extremely complicated work 
was carried out by the Tret'iakov Gallery's restorers, Aleksei 
Kovalev (the director of the department, who developed a 
unique method for treating the murals), Leonid Astaf ev, and 
Galina lushkevich. 

The obstacle of the cost of such a complicated restoration 
project was overcome by means of international collaboration. 
It was decided that the murals would be exhibited in various 
countries throughout the world until the reconstruction of the 
museum was complete. The high quality of the restoration, 
which won a prize in Ferrara in 1991, enabled an extensive 
exhibition tour. The paintings were first shown in Switzerland, 
at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, which financed 
the restoration. The exhibition then traveled to the Schirn 
Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow, 
and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. In all of these 
exhibitions, which proved to be very successful, the murals 
were shown in the context of Chagall's Russian period. Now 
the murals have reached North America and New York, the 

most distant place on the tour. 

I wish to express my profound thanks to my colleague 
Thomas Krens, the Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim 
Foundation, and Deputy Director Michael Govan for bringing 
the exhibition Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater to the 
United States. 

I would especially like to thank Nicolas V. Iljine, Manager 
of Public Affairs of Lufthansa German Airlines, for his 
enormous interest in the exhibition and the energy he devoted 
toward it. I hope all visitors to the exhibition will enjoy their 
encounter with Chagall's legendary panels, the only great 
works of a monumental scale the artist created in Russia, 
which, the critics of the 1920s agreed, were his best works. 

— lurii K. Korolev 

General Director 

State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow 

Sponsor'is Statement 

The legendary, monumental murals Chagall created in 1920 for 
the auditorium of Moscow's State Jewish Chamber Theater are, 
as the artist himself described them, his most important works 
of art. They express many of the major influences that formed 
the artist's life and work, fusing into perfect harmony his 
Jewish and Russian background and traditions with European 
Modern art trends. 

Like no other artist ol his time, Chagall was able to 
combine traditional themes with Modern painting in a very 
special and symbolic form of expression. He thus created an 
ensemble that contains its own message for and language of the 
different cultures. The masterpieces were exhibited in 1991 in 
Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle. We are now especially proud to 
enable their first showing in America. 

For Lufthansa, our traditional commitment to cultural 
understanding and artistic expression is evidenced in our 
support of this extraordinary exhibition. Our association with 
great art and great artists provides better communication 
across different cultures, frontiers, and geographic boundaries. 
It is, after all, what Lufthansa is all about — linking people 
with people throughout the world. 

This exhibition in particular honors an artist who coined 
what is perhaps the most beautiful phrase ever written about 
art: "Paint is the lifeblood of the artist." 

— Jiirgen Weber 

Chairman of the Executive Board 

Lufthansa German Airlines 


sponsor's Statement 

In November 1920, the State Jewish Chamber Theater moved 
into a residence in Moscow provided by the Soviet government. 
Adjoining rooms on the second floor of the house, which had 
belonged to a wealthy merchant, L. I. Gurevich, before 
apparently being confiscated during the Revolution, were 
converted into a small auditorium capable of seating 90 people 
on benches.' Marc Chagall, who was by then known 
internationally, was hired to design the sets and costumes for 
the troupe's inaugural production of three one-act plays by 
Sholem Aleichem, which opened on January i, 1921. In the last 
few weeks of 1920, in the midst of civil war and famine, the 
artist produced an ensemble of paintings for the theater's three 
walls, the stage curtain, and the ceiling, creating an 
environment for the production that extended beyond the 
stage. The small hall became known as Chagall's Box.' Its 
surviving seven paintings (the curtain and ceiling canvases 
were lost) form the core of the Guggenheim's exhibition. 

Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater is designed to present 
these murals within a framework that illuminates the 
circumstances of their creation, from Chagall's artistic process 
and aesthetic decisions to the conditions under which he 
worked. To that end, the exhibition is divided into two 
components; the first, its nucleus, consists of the murals and 
related art works by Chagall. Included are studies for the 
paintings, which demonstrate the artist's working methods and 
techniques, as well as his set and costume sketches for the 
Sholem Aleichem Evening. Also on display are works by the artist 
in the Guggenheim's collection, ranging from the early Portrait 
of the Artist's Sister Aniuta (1910, cat. no. 21), painted before 
Chagall made his pivotal trip to Paris; to masterpieces of his 
first Parisian period, such as Paris Through the Window (1913, 
cat. no. 23); to important reprises of earlier canvases, including 
Green Violinist (1923-24, cat. no. 30). Chagall created the latter 
painting, a virtual replica of the Jewish Theater's Music (1920, 
cat. no. 4), in Paris from a sketch he had brought with him 
from Moscow, probably the drawing in the exhibition on loan 
from the Musee national d'art moderne. Centre Georges 
Pompidou, Paris {The Green Violinist {study for Alz/j/V], 1920, 
cat. no. 11).' Chagall frequently re-created images that he had 
painted years before, as if to have souvenirs of works that were 
lost to him. This exhibition unites the various versions of the 
fiddler for the first time.^ 

The second component of the exhibition is a presentation of 
documentary material concerning the Jewish Theater and the 
Chagall commission. Historical photographs, sketches, and 
posters — some unpublished and previously unknown in the 
West — and explanatory text panels indicate the period and 
atmosphere in which the murals were created. One section is 
devoted to the history of the Jewish Theater from its founding 
in 1918 through 1928. Other segments provide background 
information on Chagall's activities during his second and final 
Russian period, from 1914 to 1922, on the original installation 
of the murals, and on the history of the paintings after their 

I Jennifer Blessing 

By his own account, Chagall was determined to create a visual 
manifesto for the Jewish Theater in this commission.' Foiled in 
earlier attempts to design theatrical productions, he saw this as 
an opportunity to assert his beliefs about a new direction for 
the theater (and perhaps also for art and revolution). At the 
Jewish Theater, Chagall found himself among a group of young 
people who were trying to define the nature of their company. 
The events of 1917 had provided a tabula rasa for the Jewish 
Theater, upon which Chagall could inscribe his own codes. 
That Chagall perceived himself as a kind of Moses giving the 
law to the Israelites is clear in his grand statement, the nearly 
twenty-six-foot-long mural Introduction to the Jewish Theater 
(1920, cat. no. i), in which he painted himself being carried by 
Abram Efros, the theater critic who suggested him for the 
commission, to Aleksei Granovskii, the theater's director. The 
two tablets of the Ten Commandments appear behind the 
artist's head. 

Through a natural outgrowth of his painterly vocabulary, 
Chagall presented a kaleidoscopic panoply of ecstatic figures in 
this work, which suggested an anti-rational model of 
carnivalesque abandon for the theater. This conceptualization 
of theater was not entirely new; Russian directors such as 
Vsevolod Meierkhol'd and Aleksandr Tairov were exploring the 
legacy of commedia dell'arte and other popular theatrical 
spectacles before Chagall began work on the murals." 
Granovskii was already disposed to that kind of dramatic 
treatment through his studies under Max Reinhardt, the 
progressive Austrian director. Yet Chagall presented a unique, 
and uniquely Jewish, approach. Through specifically Jewish 
visual puns, Yiddish inscriptions, and references to the 
festivities of Jewish weddings and Purim — a Jewish analogue 
to carnival in its emphasis on ludicrous masquerades and 
outrageous intoxication — he posited a distinctive model for 
the Jewish Theater.' 

This model was not without political implications. In a 
1940 paper, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), a Russian literary 
scholar who was Chagall's contemporary, described carnival as a 
populist, Utopian conception of the world.** He found a critique 
of established power in its flouting of conventional behavior 
and established norms and in its inversion of standard 
hierarchies. Although Bakhtin studied the Renaissance world 
of Rabelais, many of his observations about the dialectical 
representation of human form — the "classical " versus the 
"grotesque" body — can be applied to Chagall's work in 
general, and his murals in particular. The classical body is the 
idealized, regularly proportioned, and decorously realistic 
figure, while the grotesque body, the body of carnival, is a 
lewdly comic explosion of ill-proportioned parts. Grotesque 
realism, in its emphasis on the debased aspects of the human 
figure, challenges the authority of the normative, or bourgeois 
standard. Carnival, along with its elements of feasting, 
dancing, parody, and raucous laughter, embraces the grotesque, 
and as such resists the principles of the dominant culture. 

Carnivalesque merrymaking and grotesquerie are 


predominant in Introduction to tha Jewish Theater. Non- 
naturalistic figures abound: men with rubbery legs twisted like 
pretzels, violinists with heads hovering over their bodies, and 
acrobats walking on their hands. Quizzical, off-color vignettes, 
such as a man pissing on a pig, a boy's circumcision, and a man 
with a boot in his mouth, appear amidst the festive revelers. 
The other paintings in the theater ensemble sustain the jocular 
tone. Four paintings representing the Arts of Music, Dance, 
Drama, and Literature were hung on the wall opposite 
Introduction. Above them was a frieze, The Wedding Table (1920, 
cat. no. 3), depicting a whimsical feast. All of these works have 
been connected to the festivities of Jewish weddings, and all 
teem with colorful, humorous details.' 

The murals take on added significance when viewed within 
the context of the Russian Revolution and its immediate 
aftermath. Chagall's riotous tumult of figures and hues, a 
Jewish harlequinade, is more than a playful fantasy; it asserts 
the priority of a specific ethnic culture against the hegemony of 
Russian society, from which the artist had been institutionally 
excluded since youth. Chagall often portrayed the people of the 
shtetl with sympathy, among them badchanim, fiddlers, and 
hasidim derived from the environment in which he was raised. 
Yet in the murals the unconventional behavior of these 
personages suggests a new world order. Chagall's inclusion of 
Pi/rimspiek}'" increases the revolutionary signification of the 
paintings because the festival of Purim commemorates the 
victory of Persian Jews over Haman, a repressive foe. To 
Russian Jews, who had been the victims of suppression and 
persecution for centuries. Christian tsars and their governments 
were but latter-day Hamans. 

While celebrating the new theater, Chagall may have used 
his Purim-carnival to rejoice at the troupe's victory over their 
Haman, that is at the fall of the tsar, who had suppressed 
Yiddish theater. In Introduction to the Jewish Theater, the vignette 
of a Jew urinating on a pig, which Chagall placed in the lower- 
right corner, the area of the painting where signatures are 
traditionally placed, may be interpreted as a sign of his 
subversive intent because the act can be viewed as a profanation 
of Christianity." Chagall, as always, couched the reference in 
the deceptively naive abandon of an upside-down world." 

Chagall's paintings for the Jewish Theater are probably his 
strongest political statement on canvas, yet they fit wholly 
within the world view expressed in his earlier work, an oeuvre 
marked by a poetic symbolism rooted in his personal cultural 
life. Within the ensemble, the canvas that most clearly presents 
Chagall's individualist Utopian vision is Love on the Stage, which 
hung on the entrance wall of the theater and would be the 
image the audience saw while leaving the theater. The ethereal 
white-on-white painting of dancers in a pas de deux presents 
the theme of two lovers floating in the air, which Chagall 
returned to repeatedly throughout his life. With this 
symbolism he seemed to suggest that love, ultimately, was the 
most important subject and, perhaps, inspiration for the new 
Jewish theater. 

If these lovers are a bride and groom, they are linked to 
the wedding performers depicted in the theater paintings of 
the Arts and to The Wedding Table.'' The wedding, ubiquitous 
in Yiddish drama, is a festive celebration of a new beginning, 
and as such bears potential political implications akin to those 
of the Purim-carnival. Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels, the 
Jewish Theater's star and Chagall's dear friend, indicated the 
significance of the wedding in his remarks about a production 
he directed in 1945: 

Our task is to show that you cannot destroy a people. No matter how 
we may bleed, we will go on as a people, and we will continue to 
celebrate weddings and give birth to children. . . . A wedding is the 
bond of life and bearing children, the beginning of a new life.'" 

Four years after he made this statement, Mikhoels was 
murdered by order of Joseph Stalin, escalating the repression of 
the Jewish Theater that had begun in the late 1920s, when all 
avant-garde theater was scrutinized by the Soviet state. The 
dream of a new world imagined by Russian artists, designers, 
and architects was ultimately quashed when the government 
rethought its support of avant-garde culture as a pedagogic 
means. The Jewish Theater, accused of undermining the goals 
of the Revolution, received the same criticism that was meted 
out to many cultural organizations and individuals. This 
repression may be a measure of the power, whether paranoically 
conceived or real, that the theater was believed to possess. 
Perhaps for the sake of self-preservation, the Jewish Theater 
censored itself, becoming progressively more conservative in 
the 1930s. 

The fate of Chagall's murals was inextricably tied to that of 
the theater for which they were painted. During the purges of 
1937, the paintings were rolled up and stored beneath the 
theater's stage for protection. In 1950, when the theater was 
closed by order of the state, the State Tret'iakov Gallery 
obtained the murals. 

After tour years in Paris, the capital ot the European avant- 
garde, Chagall returned to his country in 1914 on the brink of 
international recognition. Swept up in the chaos and euphoria 
of the Revolution, he obtained positions and commissions with 
regularity, yet his plans were rejected with equal frequency. His 
designs for various experimental theatrical productions were 
sought after, then misunderstood or disliked; he organized an 
art academy and museum as the Commissar of Art for his 
native region, only to be rejected by his students, who had 
absorbed the Suprematism of Malevich. He was asked to design 
the inaugural production for the Jewish Theater in Moscow, 
yet he had a falling-out with the management of the theater 
and was never paid. The artist left Russia in 1922 disillusioned 
and disappointed by the vicissitudes ol his vocation in his 

Chagall's paradoxical reception in the Soviet Union 
continued tor decades. As an emigre and a Jew, Marc Chagall 

Introduction xiii 

was officially persona non grata, yet he was the country's most 
famous visual artist of the twentieth century. When he visited 
the Soviet Union in 1973, apparently as part of a political 
maneuver related to the dawn of detente, he was given a hero's 
welcome, despite a virtual press blackout.'* The fate of the 
murals, which had lain in storage for years, was unknown to 
him for decades. During his visit, they were unrolled for him 
to sign, but this event did not lead to their restoration and 
exhibition. It was not until the mid-1980s that it became 
possible for the masterpieces of his second Russian period to go 
on display. In 1991, Chagall's extant paintings for the theater 
were exhibited together for the first time in fifty-four years; 
their exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo is their 
first appearance in the United States."' This catalogue marks 
the occasion. 

Chagall's playlul, fantastic scenes and seemingly childish 
handling of paint have frequently caused viewers to presume 
that an exotic, naif artist created them. In fact, the opposite is 
true. Chagall was, in many ways, an extremely arcane painter, 
loading his canvases with texts and subtexts directed at 
particular audiences, ranging from the francophile avant-garde 
to his loved ones in the shtetl. A single painting may contain 
buried references to a French poem and a Yiddish proverb, 
Suprematist and Orphist formal means, and subject matter 
that includes the Eiffel Tower and a Hasidic couple. The 
authors of this exhibition catalogue make Chagall's multiple 
cultural affiliations abundantly clear while exemplifying two 
different approaches to the artist's work. Dr. Susan Compton, 
an expert on Chagall, has written an essay illuminating 
Chagall's art-historical context. Her thorough knowledge of 
both the French and Russian avant-gardes has enabled her to 
describe the myriad sources for the Jewish Theater murals. 

Dr. Benjamin Harshav, J. and H. Blaustein Professor of 
Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale University, 
discusses the socio-historical and cultural legacy of Russian 
Jews from the Pale of Settlement, helping the reader to 
understand both the environment in which Chagall was raised 
and the references to it in his work. One of the world's 
foremost scholars of Yiddish, Dr. Harshav describes the role of 
this language in Chagall's oeuvre, while clarifying specific 
textual references in the paintings. Dr. Harshav and Barbara 
Harshav have translated and edited an extensive collection of 
primary documents by and about Chagall and relating to the 
Jewish Theater, many never before available in English. 

Chagall's murals for the Jewish Theater are of tremendous 
historical and aesthetic value. They indicate the artist's 
achievement at a pivotal time in his career, summarizing his 
stylistic development on a monumental scale and 
foreshadowing the concerns of his future work. For 
contemporary viewers, they may also be compelling because 
they suggest a position vis-a-vis the role of politics in an 
artist's oeuvre, an issue contentiously debated today. Chagall 
was a painter who insisted on emphasizing his identity while 
remaining technically sophisticated. For him 1920 was a time 

xiv Jennifer Blessing 

of intense political awareness; yet ultimately his ideology 
remained personal, destined, he believed, to communicate with 
all humanity. 

— Jennifer Blessing 

Assistant Curator for Research 

Guggenheim Museum 


1. Alexandra Shatskich [Aleksandra Shatskikh], "Marc Chagall 
and the Theatre," in Alatr Chagall: The Russian Years ipo6—ip22, 
exh. cat. (Frankfurt: Schirn Kunsthalle, 1991), p. 77. Isaac 
Kloomok in "The State Jewish Theater of Moscow," in Marc 
Chagall: His Life and Work, exh. cat. (New York: Philosophical 
Library, 1951), p. 55, claims that the house was confiscated. 

2. James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall, exh. cat. (New York: 
The Museum of Modern Art, 1946), p. 44. 

3. Angelica Zander Rudenstine, The Guggenheim Museum 
Collection: Paintings i88o-ip4S, vol. i (New York: Solomon R. 
Guggenheim Museum, 1976), pp. 76-77, fig. c. 

4. Chagall's painting Music or the Guggenheim's Green Violinist 
inspired the 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof, which was 
designed by Boris Aronson, author of an early monograph on 
the artist. (Joseph P. Swain in The Broadway Musical: A Critical 
and Musical Survey [New York and Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 1990}, p. z6o, notes the influence of the Guggenheim 
canvas on Fiddler on the Roof.) 

5. In his autobiography. My Life, which he began in 1921, he 
described his inspiration: "Ah, I thought, here is an 
opportunity to do away with the old Jewish theatre, its 
psychological naturalism, its false beards. There on these walls 
I shall at least be able to do as I please and be free to show 
everything I consider indispensable to the rebirth of the 
national theater." (Marc Chagall, My Life, Elisabeth Abbott, 
trans. [New York: The Orion Press, i960}, p. 162.) 

6. See Avram Kampf, "Art and Stage Design: The Jewish 
Theatres of Moscow in The Early Twenties," in Tradition and 
Revolution, Ruth Apter-Gabriel, ed., exh. cat. (Jerusalem: The 
Israel Museum, 1988), pp. 125-42; and Konstantin Rudnitsky, 
Russian and Soviet Theater 1(10^-19^2, Dr. Lesley Milne, ed., 
Roxane Permar, trans. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988). 

7. For detailed descriptions ot the murals see Matthew Frost, 
"Marc Chagall and the Jewish State Chamber Theatre," in 
Russian History, vol. 8, parts 1-2 (1981), pp. 90-107; Ziva 
Amishai-Maisels, "Chagall and the Jewish Revival: Center or 
Periphery," and Avram Kampf, "Art and Stage Design" in 
Apter-Gabriel, Tradition and Revolution, pp. 71-100; Kampf, 
"The Quest for a Jewish Style," in Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish 
Experience in Twentieth Century Art, exh. cat. (London: Lund 
Humphries in association with Barbican Art Gallery, 1990), 
pp. 14-43; and Amishai-Maisels, "Chagall's Murals for the State 
Jewish Chamber Theatre," in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian 
Years 1906-1922, pp. 107-27. 

8. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Helene Iswolsky, 
trans. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, submitted 
as a dissertation in 1940; first published in Moscow, 1965; first 
published in English by MIT Press in 1968); for a discussion of 

Bakhtin's works see also Peter Stallybrass and AUon "White, 
The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell 
University Press, 1986). 

9. As characterized by Bakhtin, grotesque bodies are oversized 
and protuberant and engage in activities considered impolite. 
In the vertical paintings, Chagall's figures are chunky and 
ponderous or lanky and angular. An examination of the tiny 
vignettes reveals more grotesqueries, for example, the small 
figure beside the house in the upper left section of the painting 
Music. In a 1974 interview with Margit Rowell, the artist 
described this figure as a man "qui fait caca." 

10. P urimspieler are itinerant players who perform at Purim. 
Kampf describes the Purim atmosphere of the paintings in 
"Art and Stage Design," p. 129; and "The Quest for a Jewish 
Style," p. 33. Amishai-Maisels in "Chagall's Murals for the 
State Jewish Chamber Theatre," p. 116, connects one of the 
acrobats in Chagall's Introduction to the Jewish Theater to the 
festival of Purim. 

11. Amishai-Maisels, "Chagall's Murals for the State Jewish 
Chamber Theatre," p. 118. 

12. Chagall's use of the world of the carnival and circus became 
more pronounced, and perhaps secular, in his later work. In 
1974, he stated, "'Le cirque pour moi c'est une enorme realite. 
Nous somme tous des personnages des cirque.'" (Quoted in 
Rudenstine, The Guggenheim Museum Collection: Paintings 
1880-194S, p. 78.) 

13. Amishai-Maisels in "Chagall's Murals for the State Jewish 
Chamber Theatre," p. 121, identifies the wedding canopy in 
Love on the Stage. 

14. Quoted by Nahma Sandrow, "The Soviet Yiddish State 
Theaters: GOSET," in Vagabond Stars: A World History of 
Yiddish Theater (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 248. 

15. This information was relayed to me by Gregory "Veitsman, 
former Assistant Director for Technical Services at the State 
Tret'iakov Gallery, who is working on a book about that 
museum. See his Afterword in this book, pp. 205-07. 

16. Restoration of the three largest paintings, sponsored by the 
Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, Switzerland, began in 
late 1989. The ensemble of paintings was exhibited at the 
Fondation Pierre Gianadda, March i-June 9, 1991; Schirn 
Kunsthalle Frankfurt, June 15-August 25, 1991; State 
Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow, fall 1991-winter 1992; and State 
Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, spring 1992. The single 
paintings Dance and Music were exhibited in 1987 at the State 
Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow; and in 1989-90 at the Bunkamura 
Museum of Art, Tokyo; Kasama Nichido Museum, Ibaraki; 
and the Nagoya City Art Museum. 



r # 




ChagalPs Auditorium: 
^^An Identity Crisis 
of Tragic Dimensions'^ 

Susan Compton 

fig. I 

Chagall painting a study for Introduction to the Jewish Theater 
{cat. no. 8). 1920. 

There cannot be many instances of an artist being invited to 
design the sets for a play and so exceeding his commission that 
he made the whole auditorium into an extension of the stage. 
Yet this is what Marc Chagall did in November-December 
1920, when he transformed an unpromising room in an 
ordinary Moscow house into a spectacular setting for the State 
Jewish Chamber Theater.' The company had been set up in 
1919 to perform plays in Yiddish, the traditional language 
spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe. When the group failed to 
find suitable premises in Petrograd, they were offered two 
floors of a building on Bol'shoi Chernyshevskii Lane in 
Moscow, which had become the home of another Jewish 
theater company in April 1920; they accepted, moving to 
Moscow in November 1920, and the two groups merged. The 
company immediately began rehearsing their first production 
scheduled for the new space, an evening of three one-act plays 
by Sholem Aleichem, for which Chagall had been 
commissioned to design the sets and costumes. From opening 
night on New Year's Day 1921, the audience found so much to 
look at in the theater that Abram Efros, the artistic director, 
spent as much time explaining the pictures on the walls as the 
plays on the stage. Efros, co-author of a recently published 
monograph, The Art of Marc Chagall, was well equipped to 
provide answers to his questioners." But because he did not 
leave any record of his explanations, most of what we know 
about Chagall's role in the State Jewish Chamber Theater has 
come from the artist's own memoirs, My LifeJ In those pages, 
Chagall wrote a vivid account of the conditions in which he 
worked, describing how he painted the canvases on the floor 
while workmen built a stage at one end, and how he continued 
to paint while the actors rehearsed on it.'' When he was done, 
his paintings — in tempera and gouache on canvas — 
decorated all the walls and even the ceiling of the theater: four 
vertical panels between the windows on one side, on the 
themes of Music, Dance, Drama, and Literature (cat. nos. 4—7), 
and a narrow frieze depicting a wedding feast (cat. no. 3) above 
them; one long composition. Introduction to the Jewish Theater 
(cat. no. i), on the windowless wall opposite; a single panel. 
Love on the Stage (cat. no. 2), between the two entrance doors at 
the back of the theater; the stage curtain; and the ceiling 
painting, which depicted flying lovers and was described by 
James Johnson Sweeney in 1946 as "conceived as a sort of 
mirror in an interwoven pattern of grays, blacks and whites, 
suggesting a reflection of the colors and forms on all sides and 
beneath it."' In 1924, the canvases were taken from their 
original setting to the new home of the Jewish Chamber 
Theater, a former concert hall in Malaia Bronnaia Street, to 
which the company moved when their success required seating 
for more than the eighty accommodated by their old theater.*^ 
Because Chagall's large works were painted like theater sets on 
canvas, rather than directly on the wall, they were easily 
rehung in the foyer of the new building. 

During Chagall's lifetime these theater decorations were 
little known in the West — where they remained unseen 
except in photographs — and so the scale of the original 
undertaking went unrecognized. His friends in Paris saw 
something of his vision when the company toured Western 
Europe in the late 1920s, and they no doubt recognized that 
the style of acting in the Sholem Aleichem Evening was inspired 
by his sets, which were still in use. But the murals remained in 
obscurity in the theater on Malaia Bronnaia Street for the next 
twenty years. 

A tangible reminder in New York of the project was Green 
Violinist, a second version of one of the murals, Music; Chagall 
made Green Violinist in Paris in 1923-24, and it is now in the 
Guggenheim Museum's collection (cat. no. 30). In 1946, this 
painting (then still in the artist's possession) was exhibited in 

Chagall's Auditorium 1 

New York at Chagall's retrospective at the Museum of Modern 
Art and fully discussed in the context of the State Jewish 
Chamber Theater in the catalogue.^ The watercolor study for 
Introduction to the Jewish Theater (cat. no. 8) was also shown at 
the same exhibition, along with some of the costume and set 
designs. Soon afterward, the company was disbanded and its 
Moscow theater expropriated when Stalin carried out a 
persecution of the Jews. Apparently through the initiative of 
artist Aleksandr Tyshler, Chagall's canvases were taken to the 
State Tret'iakov Gallery for safekeeping." Chagall did not see 
the works again until 1973, when he was invited to sign them 
at the Tret'iakov on his visit to Moscow. All the canvases had 
survived except the ceiling painting. Unfortunately, Chagall 
did not live to see the conservation work that has enabled the 
surviving murals to be exhibited again; they had deteriorated 
while being kept rolled up for more than forty years.'' 

The present exhibition thus provides one of the first 
opportunities to consider Chagall's theater murals in the 
context of his own art and of that of his friends and 
acquaintances in the worlds of theater and art. Ideas underlying 
the scheme for the series of paintings can be shown to hark 
back to the beginning of Chagall's life as an artist, and to 
reflect his upbringing in Vitebsk. This essay is devoted to 
exploring certain aspects of his work in relation to Russian and 
French writing and art. (His background in a Yiddish- 
speaking community and its effect on his art are discussed 
elsewhere in this book.) Previously, many writers have relied 
too heavily on Chagall's memoirs, accepting them as though 
they were an objective account of his life. Chagall's My Life 
should rather be seen as a response to the 1918 publication in 
Russian of Vasilii Kandinskii's Reminiscences^ that artist's 
carefully self-selected artistic autobiography, originally 
published in German in 1913.'° 

It is true that the themes in Chagall's art are very often 
autobiographical; and My Life and the memoirs of his wife, 
Bella," give fascinating insights into his childhood 
background. However, once he began to study art, Chagall was 
not as cut off from the Russian and French avant-garde as he 
later claimed. He liked to perpetuate the notion (put forward 
by his first biographers) that he was "an original primitive, " 
but despite the apparent naivete of his imagery, he was actually 
quite sophisticated and knowledgeable in matters of art." 

Chagall's sophistication is apparent in his creation of a fully 
integrated decorative scheme for the auditorium of the State 
Jewish Chamber Theater as well as his handling of pictorial 
space in the individual parts, and the complete work may be 
compared with decorative schemes by Russian artists known to 
him. Among the most prominent were those made in Berlin 
shortly afterward by Kandinskii and by two of Chagall's former 
colleagues at the Art School in Vitebsk, Ivan Puni (Jean 
Pougny) and El Lissitzky (which were reconstructed for the 
Venice Biennale in 1976 as examples of environmental art in 
the twentieth century"). Puni's was the earliest, made at the 
gallery Der Sturm in Berlin in 1921; it was less ambitious than 
the other two, because Puni covered only one of the gallery 
walls with his numbers, letters, and a tumbling acrobat, cut 
from colored paper. In contrast, Lissitzky's Proun Room, first 
shown at the Grosser Berliner Kunstausstellung in 1923, was a 
complete interior, for which he made designs on the floor and 
the ceiling, painted the walls, and constructed three- 
dimensional, painted reliefs for the corners, using 
combinations of scjuares and rectangles in black, gray, and 
white. '^ Kandinskii planned his Musical Environment for an 
unjuried exhibition in Berlin, also in 1923 — a group of huge 
murals, with abstract elements typical of his contemporary 
paintings, on a black background in an octagonal room." 

Only now can the differences between these Berlin schemes 

and Chagall's in Moscow be fully appreciated. Chagall's "box" 
— as the Moscow theater he had decorated was soon 
nicknamed — may have inspired these other Russian artists to 
produce their schemes in Berlin, but, unlike his own and, to 
a lesser extent, Puni's, the creations by Lissitzky and 
Kandinskii were art taken to the limits of abstraction. 
Although Chagall used abstract elements freely throughout the 
murals, he never confined himself to what he regarded as the 
narrow path of abstraction. "Although I love all painting, 
provided that its elements are pure," he told an interviewer in 
1949, "... abstract art is so intolerant. Everything has to give 
way, the romantic, the figurative. . . . Even Cubists never went 
as far as to say: Sei/lement nous [ourselves alone}." "' However, the 
greatest difference between Chagall's design and his 
compatriots' slightly later ones is that his decorations were not 
made solely for an exhibition. His scheme was intimately 
connected with the action on the stage and, when the curtain 
was raised, the "fourth wall" opened onto an imaginary world, 
made real by the actors. Chagall's plan took this into account: 
he prepared the audience for the stage performance by his 
Introduction to the Jewish Theater, which filled the long wall of 
the auditorium and led the eye toward the stage curtain; 
between the windows of the wall opposite this lively mural, 
and on the frieze above, the spectators could see his 
interpretations of characters and props probably inspired by 
An-ski's play The Dybbuk.'' Once the performance ended and 
they turned to leave the theater, they faced another scene. Love 
on the Stage, on the exit wall. Chagall's theater was therefore 
closer in feeling, though not in style, to the nightclubs or 
cabarets decorated by avant-garde artists that were such a 
feature of artistic life in Petrograd and Moscow. Chagall 
frequented the Stray Dog and the Comedian's Halt in the 
capital when he lived there from 1915 to 1917; he must have also 
known the Cafe Pittoresque and the Poets' Cafe, which opened 
in Moscow shortly before he began work on the murals. The 
Comedian's Halt provided the closest prototype: its walls were 
covered with large figure paintings by Boris Grigorev.'* 
Chagall knew the place well, as he had painted the backdrop 
for one of the theatrical productions that was staged at the club 
in 1916, a musical sketch called To Die Happy."' 

The director who gave Chagall this first opportunity to 
work in the theater was Nikolai Evreinov, recently described 
by the author of an essay on Chagall as "a friend of 
Meyerhold. ""' Perhaps the author's reason for linking Evreinov 
and Vsevolod Meierkhol'd in this way was to connect Chagall's 
earlier work for Evreinov at the Comedian's Halt with the 
designs for plays by Nikolai Gogol' that Chagall made for 
Meierkhol'd's Hermitage Studio Theater in 1919." It also serves 
to place Chagall firmly in the theatrical camp opposed to 
Konstantin Stanislavskii, the director of the Moscow Art 
Theater, whose realistic style Chagall criticized in My Life." 
But Evreinov was a director with his own ideas and had been 
responsible for the seasons of Old Time Theater staged in St. 
Petersburg while Chagall was a student there from 1907 to 
1910." In those years, there were frequent debates on the nature 
of Russian theater and its future, mainly between factions 
supporting realism and symbolism. Chagall must have been 
fully aware of the arguments, because both of his teachers at 
the Zvantseva School were working for the stage at the time. 
Lev Bakst, who taught him painting, was then designing sets 
and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's ballets, which were 
rehearsed in St. Petersburg before being taken to Paris. 
Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, who taught Chagall drawing, designed 
stylized sets and costumes for the two medieval mystery plays 
that Evreinov put on in his first season in 1907—08, and 
naturalistic ones for Stanislavskii 's production of A Month in the 
Country in 1909.'*' 

2 Susan ComlHon 

Chagall understated his early interest in the theater. He 
entirely omitted Dobuzhinskii's name from his memoirs, even 
though he began writing them not long aher Dobuzhinskii 
had designed one ot the early productions ot the State Jewish 
Chamber Theater and had taught with him for some months at 
the Art School in Vitebsk." In My Life he did write about 
Bakst, conveying something of the dandyism of this "actor in 
life." He also remembered asking his permission to try to paint 
a backdrop for the ballet Narcisse; the production stayed in his 
memory, for the dancer in Chagall's mural Dance is closer to 
Bakst's costume designs for the Bacchantes in Nanisse than to 
any of his own earlier work."^ 

Despite Chagall's failure to mention Evreinov in My Life, 
the director's ideas made a lasting impression on him at the 
beginning of his career, and Chagall's approach to painting 
remained close to Evreinov's ideas on theater.'" In an article in 
1908, Evreinov had set out his theatrical principles, which seem 
to have been a factor in Chagall's frequent choice of dramatic 
moments of everyday life as subject matter for his paintings. 
Evreinov claimed that theater is basic to man and that 
historically it developed before art of any other kind, even 
antedating religion and aesthetics. He argued that primitive 
man guards against monotony in his everyday life by using 
such events as marriage or death as opportunities to organize 
spectacles; and that from these, there is only a small 
psychological step to theater. Dismissing naturalism, he said 
that theatrical illusion depends on showing an n/htge of the 
subject rather than the actual subject, on developing a 
representati(»i of action, not simply action itself. Theater should 
create its own spiritual values and not serve some external idea 
or morality. Pure realism and pure symbolism were for him 
irreconcilable with true theater — the first because it 
unnecessarily duplicates life; the second because it interferes 
with the direct enjoyment of what we see."* From 1908 on, 
Chagall chose to depict the rites of life: birth, marriage, and 
death in different non-naturalistic styles. Even before he left 
the Zvantseva School for Paris, he had exhibited his Dead Man 
(1908) at the school's exhibition at the offices of the journal 
Apollon; he had also painted a remarkable Birth (1910), as well 
as a Russian Wedding (1909),"' in which the characters that he 
would later paint in the State Jewish Chamber Theater murals 
make their first appearance, though in a style that shows his 
admiration of the work of Paul Gauguin at that time. 

There are other reasons for Chagall's attraction to such 
subjects, particularly the theory of "real symbols" put forward 
by the poet Viacheslav Ivanov, who lived in his "Tower" on the 
top floor of the building that housed the Zvantseva School. 
Ivanov believed that artists should make use of everyday things 
to "enable us to become aware of the interrelationship and 
meaning of what exists not only in the sphere of earthly, 
empirical consciousness, but in other spheres too." Moreover, 
Ivanov wrote, "as a midwife eases the process of birth, so 
should [the artist} help things to reveal their beauty,"" an idea 
that almost crudely underlies Chagall's first painting of birth, 
which is dominated by the central figure of a midwife holding 
up the newborn child." Yet, over the following years Chagall's 
approach remained close enough to Evreinov's ideas for the 
director to be content to allow him to use a version of an 
existing composition, The Drunkard,'' as the backdrop at the 
Comedian's Halt. It created the right ambience because, 
although fantastic, it was neither too realistic nor too symbolic. 
In the field of Russian theater design, where artists generally 
took great care to relate their work precisely to the play, this 
was a rare case of an artist simply adapting one of his paintings 
for a stage set. But Chagall's backdrop, his coloring the hands 
and faces of the actors for the production, and even his murals 
for the State Jewish Chamber Theater would not have taken 

the form they did without the stimulus of living in Paris, 
where he had painted The Drunkard. In that city he was even 
more closely in contact with new ideas generated by painters 
and poets than he had been in St. Petersburg. 

Although he spent barely four years in Paris — from 1910 
to 1914 — during that time the young Russian developed from 
a student of promise into an artist of international stature. In 
1911, he painted a larger, revised version o{ Russian Wedding, 
called simply Wedding, giving it a friezelike composition in 
which a procession takes place on a stagelike space, with 
similar figures but complicated by colored, abstract shapes in 
the brilliant hues that he began using soon after he arrived in 
Paris." By the end of 1911, he had painted a new version of 
Birth, dividing the canvas into several scenes, each containing 
its own episode, which he sent back to Russia for inclusion in a 
Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) exhibition." By the time he 
returned to Vitebsk at the end of June 1914, Chagall's most 
recently exhibited paintings rivaled in scale and complexity 
those of more experienced French artists such as Henri Le 
Fauconnier, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Metzinger. All three 
taught at the Academie de la Palette (attended by Chagall) and 
produced large canvases for exhibition at the Salon des 

Chagall's paintings on view at the Salon in spring 1914 
included The Fiddler (fig. 2)," a particularly significant work 
because it is the precursor of the mural Music, the only one in 
the series with a direct antecedent. Although a violinist had 
led the procession in Russian Wedding, and the instrument was 
dear to Chagall because he had learned it as a boy. The Fiddler 
may also contain a historical reference. The Estonian violinist 
Edward Sormus was performing in 1912 at fund-raising events 
in Paris when Anatolii Lunacharskii reported in the Russian- 
language Parisian newspaper how Sormus, at the time of the 
abortive Revolution of 1905, had led demonstrations through 
the streets of St. Petersburg, playing his violin.'" Some of the 
elements in the background of The Fiddler — such as the 
footprints in the snow (one red as though bloodstained) and 
heads piled one above the other (suggesting a crowd) — 
indicate that Chagall may have been inspired by the story. 
When he based M//sic on the same composition, after the 
successful Revolution of 1917, he altered the details but kept 
the same device of using a variety of elements behind a central 
figure. In both The Fiddler and Music, these interpolated 
background elements are much smaller than the dominant 
figure in the foreground. The association of fragments of events 
and places separated in time and space, which he had invented 
for The Fiddler, became the most notable characteristic of the 
entire theater-murals project. 

This device (which he later termed "psychic construction") 
is intimately bound up with the poetry of the artist's Parisian 
friends. He mentioned several writers in My Life — Andre 
Salmon, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, and Guillaume 
ApoUinaire — but Cendrars and ApoUinaire contributed the 
most to his art. Apollinaire's interest in Chagall was greatest at 
the very end of the painter's stay in Paris. He provided a poem 
as the introduction to Chagall's exhibition at the gallery Der 
Sturm in Berlin in 1914,'' and also wrote a review of the show 
(which was published in Paris soon after Chagall returned to 
Vitebsk). In the review, ApoUinaire described him as "an 
extremely varied artist, capable of painting monumental 
pictures, and he is not inhibited by any system.""* As the 
champion of modern art, whose articles in avant-garde journals 
defined emerging art movements, he thus placed Chagall 
outside the Parisian mainstream; and he confessed to preferring 
Chagall's more recent work, giving Paris Through the Window 
(now in the Guggenheim Museum's collection; cat. no. 23) as 
an example. His choice is not surprising, for the Janus-headed 

Chagall's Auditorium 3 



4 i^ 






4 i'/wtfs Conipton 

figure in the foreground has been identified as representing the 
poet himself, and the human-faced cat on the windowsill has 
been seen as a reference to a line from one of his own poems: 
"Your father was a sphinx and your mother the night. "" This 
connection between ApoUinaire's poetry and Chagall's painting 
is reinforced by the small yellow heart painted on the Janus- 
headed figure's outstretched hand, corresponding to the black 
heart around which Chagall had written his dedication to 
Apollinaire in his painting Homage to Apollinaire.'" 

Chagall saw more of Cendrars than of Apollinaire in Paris, 
and it was Cendrars who provided titles for many of Chagall's 
pictures, including Paris Thro/igh the Window.'" The various 
snippets of experience from which Chagall composed this 
window-painting reflect the dislocated imagery of Cendrars's 
poetry. Note, for instance, some lines that Cendrars wrote in 

It's raining electric light bulbs 

Montronge Gare de I'Est subway North-South 

river boats world 
Everything is halo 
In the Rue de B/tci they're hawking I'lntransigeant 

and Paris-Sports 
The airdrome of the sky is on fire, a painting 

by Cimabue. ■*" 

Cendrars piles one idea upon another intuitively without any 
apparent logical connection, as in the accidental juxtaposition 
of advertising posters on walls or fragments of overheard 
conversation, in order to reflect modern life and its multiple 
means of communication. 

Apollinaire used similar sources and juxtaposed his images 
in this seemingly random fashion in the poems he named 
Calligranniies , where the printed words not only carry their 
expected meanings but are clustered together on the page in 
novel arrangements to form literal pictures. He defended them 
from the charge that they were incomprehensible as written 
language by saying that the fragments of language were now 
tied together by an ideographic, instead of a grammatical, 
logic. He felt that this made no psychological difference to the 
poem, even though the intuitive spatial arrangement was quite 
the opposite of reasoned order. ApoUinaire's poems and this 
explanation were printed in Les Soirees de Pans after Chagall had 
left for the opening of his 1914 exhibition in Berlin.^- 

Chagall's quotation of disconnected visual elements in his 
recently completed F/t/,://£'r parallels ApoUinaire's use of verbal 
ones. Indeed, ApoUinaire's defense could be adapted to read as 
a defense of works such as The Tiddler., where the normal 
relation of parts to the whole is absent, conventions of scale are 
ignored, and spatial logic is replaced by unaccountable jumps 
from one part of the picture to another. Viewers who had 
barely accustomed themselves to "reading " Cubist space — 
with its quotations from "real life" in the form of snippets of 
words — must have been confused by the absence of anything 
like the geometric framework that served to relate one element 
with another in a Cubist painting. Instead, their eyes must 
have moved restlessly from the little blue tree on the right, 
with its population of songbirds, to the composite figure on 
the left, with the three heads imposed on a single body. They 
must have found quite incomprehensible the juxtapositions of 
a house with a foot, a leg with a stool, and a stool with a 

fig. 2 

The Fiddler. 1912-1^. 

Oil on canvas. 188 x 1^6 cm (74 x 61 '/s inches). 

Stedelijk Mi/se/an. Amsterdam. 

church tower; only in the upper part of the picture — where a 
row of houses preserved its congruent proportions — could 
they find a reliable type of order. Yet, a particular aspect of 
Cubism described by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger in 
their treatise on Cubism, published in 1912, applies to The 
Tiddler. "The painter has the power of rendering as enormous 
things that we regard as infinitesimal, and as infinitesimal 
things that we know to be considerable: he changes quantity 
into quality. "^^ In addition, viewers of The Fiddler might be 
reminded of Cimabue or other primitive Italian masters. In the 
review mentioned above, Apollinaire suggested yet another 
link, describing Chagall as "a colorist imbued with an 
imagination that occasionally finds its source in the fantasies of 
Slavic folk illustration but always goes beyond them."^' Russian 
woodblock prints, so popular with avant-garde artists in Russia 
at the time, often show figures enlarged according to their 
importance in the story. As is invariably the case in Chagall's 
paintings at all stages in his career, a multiplicity of ideas 
underlay his inventions. 

It may seem strange that Chagall's Fiddler, conceived in 
Paris, is so much further from Cubism than Music and its later 
counterpart, Green Violinist. In Paris in 1913, however, Chagall 
rejected rigorous Cubism after showing a large picture at the 
Salon des Independants in spring 1913 under the title Couple 
sous I'arbre {Couple Under a Tree) — obviously Adam and Eve.'*'' 
The entwined figures of Adam and Eve are close in style to 
Russian Cubo-Futurist paintings such as those that Liubov' 
Popova painted in 1914-16 on her return to her homeland from 
Paris (where she had studied in the same Academie de la 
Palette as Chagall).^" Chagall, however, found that style too 
cerebral and he became interested in an offshoot of Cubism, 
Orphism. This was a movement named and promoted by 
Apollinaire, who summarized the first exhibition of Orphist 
paintings in March 1913: "[Orphism] unites painters of quite 
different characters all of whom have, by their researches, 
arrived at a more subjective, more popular, more poetic vision 
of the universe and of life. "^^ He admired the work of its chief 
exponent and theorist, Robert Delaunay, whose work has often 
been compared to Chagall's." Chagall became friends with 
Delaunay and his Russian wife, Sonia, and in 1913 attended a 
dance hall, the Bal BuUier, with them and a group of their 
friends every Thursday. During that year Sonia Delaunay 
painted evocations of the lights and the movement of the 
colorful dancers in what she named her "simultaneous " 
paintings. Some of her canvases were very large (though not as 
large as Chagall's Introduction to the Jewish Theater) and her 
interlocking circles, with traces of dancing figures entirely 
painted in bright colors, produce a luminous effect. The 
memory of her work may have contributed to Chagall's 
decision to break up his flat background with segments of 
circles when he came to paint the theater murals. 

This connection may seem rather remote, especially as 
Chagall was not interested in Orphism taken to the extremes of 
pure abstraction, in which the subject matter was progressively 
reduced until only color and form remained. Yet, in 1913-14, he 
painted a figure of Orpheus (whose name had inspired the art 
movement) reclining on a colored hillock.*" Chagall 
emphasized the hero's lyre in this painting, which suggests 
that he was fully aware of the symbolic aspect of Orpheus as 
the "ideal embodiment of the poet whose song had the power 
of illumination . . . giving meaning to the mystery of life."*' 
Such a view stems from nineteenth-century French poetry and 
was the basis of ApoUinaire's use of the Orphic theme in his 
own. In Le Best/aire, Apollinaire had interspersed his poems 
about animals with poems about Orpheus, and one of the 
woodcuts that Raoul Dufy made for this book is dominated by 
an enlarged figure of the mythical hero surrounded by abstract 

Chagall's Auditorium 5 

space, in which a tiny Eiffel Tower as well as an equally small 
Egyptian pyramid emerge from a multitude of lines." Dufy's 
illustration may even have provided a further prototype for 
Chagall's Fiddler composition. Yet another instance of the 
connections between ApoUinaire's poetry and Chagall's work is 
found in some almost untranslatable lines from Cortege d'Orphee, 
which rnay have inspired the image of The Drunkard: "he saw 
his cut-off head is the sun / and the moon his sliced neck."" 

After Chagall returned to Russia, during the six years 
before he painted his murals, he chose themes that were less 
easily connected with contemporary poetry. He relinquished 
birth and death, although love dominated his pictures after his 
marriage to Bella in 1915. Among other subjects, he painted a 
different type of wedding scene in a completely different style 
from the ones he had done before. This black, white, and gray 
drawing on paper, tr\x.\x\ftdi Jewish Marriage (fig. 3), shows a 
non-naturalistic but dramatic indoor scene: in a stagelike 
space, a bride and groom sit at the head of a table with 
caricatured guests in front of a "backdrop" view of the local 
town through a curtain-framed window. From the "wings," a 
figure anticipating the one in the mural Drama floats in, 
bearing wine for the feast; "downstage," a woman enlivens the 
proceedings by dancing with a male reveler, admittedly in a 
more earthbound way than her later counterpart in the mural 
Dance. The watercolor is reminiscent of studies that Chagall 
made at the beginning of 1917, when he was commissioned to 
provide wall-paintings for the school attached to the chief 
synagogue in Petrograd. The project was never realized, but 
some of Chagall's preparatory works for it have survived, 
including a watercolor of a secular scene. Visit to the 
Grandparents., and scenes of two religious festivals. Feast of the 
Tabernacles (in gouache) and Pi/rim (in oil),*"' as well as two final 
sketches, Purim and The Baby Carriage," both greatly simplified 
in comparison with the Purim oil and Visit to the Grandparents. 
Many of the details in these final sketches are similar to those 
for the theater murals — indeed, at the top of the Introduction 
to the Jewish Theater there is a drawing of the facade of the 
St. Petersburg building in which they were to have been 
housed.**^ But, although activity is suggested in both designs 
— a striding figure and a seller of sweets in one; a woman 
knitting, another woman painting, and figures apparently 
pushing the pram in the other — there is none of the sweeping 
sensation of movement expressed by the figures in the later 
murals. Purim features a large figure in the foreground and 
smaller ones in the background, as in The Fiddler, but here they 
are silhouetted against a plain white background, with no 
anticipation of the Cubist touches that were to dominate Music. 

Chagall explored a great many ways of composing pictures 
after his return to Russia. He drew portraits and even 
townscapes "from life" and usually added his own quirky 
details; he transformed interior views by choosing unusual 
viewpoints; he invented a bird's-eye view combining a 
recognizable town with stylized figures floating in the sky. He 
was well aware of the inventions of other Russian avant-garde 
artists because he took part in exhibitions that included a wide 
range of contemporary artists.'" Sometimes he found inspiration 
in unexpected sources, such as Aristarkh Lentulov's Orneisme.'^ 
However, whereas Lentulov often used real lace and tassels, 
gluing them to his canvases, Chagall soaked lacy cloth in paint 
and used it to transfer patterns to canvas or paper — a device 
that he employed extensively in the theater murals. The 
technique can be studied in close-up in a work on paper from 
1920 known as The Dreatn (and belonging to the Guggenheim 
Museum; cat. no. 27). 

In Russia in 1917, general interest in Cubism — and more 
specifically, Pablo Picasso's use of unusual textures — - was 
stimulated by a study of the artist by poet and critic Ivan 

Aksenov." This Russian monograph (the first on Picasso in any 
language) provoked considerable response among artists. 
Chagall himself investigated the formal possibilities of Cubism 
again, particularly in two rather different paintings. The 
Apparition,*" and Anywhere Out of This World (its title borrowed 
from a prose-poem by Charles Baudelaire)."^' Chagall's close-up 
figures in blue and white, hovering in the dreamlike space of 
his Cubistic Apparition, may be compared with Natan 
Al'tman's earlier Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,'" which has a 
similar, Cubistic background. Anywhere Out of This World, with 
its simple coloring and emphasis on texture, has some formal 
resemblance to David Shterenberg's Table with a Roll of 1919.'" 
The connection between the last two and conventional Cubism 
may seem remote, as Shterenberg's composition of a tabletop 
with a dish and a bread roll is nearly abstract, but the principal 
feature of both works is an area of thick white paint worked in 
places with a house-painter's graining comb. (This refers to the 
"Polemical Supplement" that Aksenov had added to his 
account of Picasso's art in which he discussed the artist's use of 
texture, mentioning the use of such a comb.'"*) These three 
Russian artists had all lived in Paris for several years before 
1914, but it was not easy to see Picasso's work, except in his 
studio or his dealer's gallery, as he did not submit work to 
exhibitions there. Furthermore, Shterenberg (considerably 
older than the other two) had studied at the Ecole des Beaux- 
Arts, and Al'tman (the youngest) had attended Marie Vasil'ev's 
Russian Academy in Paris, so Chagall was the only one with a 
Cubist-oriented background. However, in Moscow, artists were 
able to study Picasso at first hand because the city already 
boasted the largest number of his paintings outside Paris. The 
best collection of Picasso's work in Russia belonged to Sergei 
Shchukin, who had bought many of Picasso's Cubist paintings 
from 1909 onward and regularly opened his Moscow house to 
artists. However, it is not certain that the Jewish artists had 
the opportunity to see the collection until they gained 
citizenship after the February Revolution in 1917; this allowed 
all Jews to travel without a permit for the first time and gave 
artists an opportunity to visit this remarkable collection and 
see works by Gauguin and Henri Matisse as well as Picasso. A 
renewed concern with French art was an important corrective 
to what might have become a provincial attitude, especially for 
Shterenberg, Chagall, and Al'tman, who in 1919 founded the 
Moscow branch of the League of Culture, an organization 
dedicated to the promotion of Jewish art.'"' They did not 
believe that art, in order to be Jewish, should be stylistically 
restricted, and each developed an international approach, 
remaining close enough in their aims to share an exhibition in 
spring 1922, which featured the second public display of 
Chagall's murals.'* 

When Chagall began designing the theater murals, his 
decision to allot a complete wall to a single subject meant that 
he had to invent a far more complex composition than he had 
proposed for the Petrograd synagogue-school murals. The 
disproportion of length to height suggested a friezelike, 
compartmentalized composition, which he could have based on 
his 1911 pictures oi Birth and Wedding. Alternatively, he could 
have followed the example of Sonia Delaunay in her Orphist 
rendering of the Bal Bullier. He seems, however, to have found 
help in Gleizes's and Metzinger's book on Cubism, where the 
following passage reads like a recipe for the way he composed 
ItIs Introduct/oii to the Jewish Theater. 

We must also contrive to cut up by large restful surfaces all regions 
in which activity is exaggerated by excessive contiguity. In short, the 
science of design consists in instituting relations between straight lines 
and curves. A picture which contained only straight lines or curves 
would not express life. It would be the same with a picture in which 

6 Susan Cdriiptim 

fig- 3 

Jewish Marriage, igios. 

Gouache, India ink, pen, and brush on paper, 

mounted on cardboard, 20.$ x ^o cm (8 x li V< inches). 

Collection ofZinaida Gordaeva, St. Petersburg, 

Chagall's Auditorium j 7 

curves and straight lines exactly compensate one another, for exact 
equivalence is equal to zero. . . . What the curve is to the straight line, 
the cold tone is to the warm tone in the domain of col or. ^^ 

Chagall indeed "cut up" the extensive surface of his twenty- 
six-foot-long canvas by using straight lines and curves. But 
instead of the fragmented arrangement of thin verticals, 
horizontals, and adjoining curves so characteristic of Picasso's 
Cubist work — and of Gleizes's and Metzinger's — Chagall 
joined his lines with bands of color so that they sweep across 
the canvas in great diagonals and become parts of large 
triangles. His curves form segments of circles, so large that 
they form interlocking worlds within the composition. In 
addition, although his curves and straight lines never 
"compensate one another," nor, "in the domain of color," do his 
cold tones evenly balance the warm, he imparts a sensation of 
movement — alien to Cubism, though not to Orphism — to 
this mural, and to the entire scheme. 

It would be foolish to suggest that Chagall simply read or 
re-read Gleizes's and Metzinger's Cubism''" in 1920 because he 
was faced with a compositional problem. A more likely reason 
was the publication at the Art School in Vitebsk of a fellow- 
teacher's book on the development of twentieth-century art, 
Kazimir Malevich's On New Systems in Art, which was 
published in December 1919 in an edition handmade by the 
school's graphic workshop.'' Chagall referred to it as "our 
edition " in a note on a letter that he wrote in April 1920, when 
he was evidently still on reasonable terms with Malevich."° 
Nonetheless, Chagall's firsthand experience ot the full range of 
Modernist art in Western Europe must have raised doubts in 
his own mind about his colleague's analysis of Cubism. 
Furthermore, although Malevich showed an extraordinary 
grasp ot the principles of Cubism in his earlier paintings 
(especially considering that he had then traveled no further 
from Moscow than Petrograd), he had used the style as his 
stepping-stone to non-objective Suprematism, which he still 
espoused in 1919—20. The emblem of Suprematism was his 1915 
Black Sq//are, which he saw as a breakthrough in the history of 
art. He explained that Suprematism was the beginning of a 
new culture: "The square is not a subconscious form. It is the 
creation of intuitive reason. The face of the new art "; with his 
painting of a black square on a white ground he had reduced 
painting to "zero, " building on Gleizes's and Metzinger's 
phrase "exact equivalence is equal to zero. " ' 

Chagall quoted Malevich's "zero-form" in the mural Music, 
where a small black square hovers over one of the houses in the 
background, near the right-hand edge. He balanced this on the 
left side, not by a complete black circle, typical of 
Suprematism, but by a black wedgelike segment more typical 
of recent black paintings by Aleksandr Rodchenko, a younger 
artist who had opposed his Black on Black paintings to 
Malevich's latest White on White at the Tenth State Exhibition 
in 1919."' Those attuned to the subtleties of non-objective art 
may have recognized Chagall's comment on this recent battle 
of white and black in his mural Love on the Stage, in which the 
outlines of the transparent figures of two ballet dancers 
embracing emerge from an interplay of geometric forms 
executed in gradations of grays. But unlike Malevich, who had 
eliminated all but squares, polygons, and curved abstract forms 
from his white paintings in this show, or Rodchenko, who had 
based some of his apparently abstract black forms on recent 
astronomical events, '' Chagall retained references to the world 
as we know it in his riposte. He indicated the floorboards of a 
steeply raked stage by means of parallel lines; he placed a 
screen behind and to the left of the dancers — not unlike the 
one he used as scenery for It's a Lie, on e of the plays in the 
Sholem Aleichem Evening — and topped it with a shaded 

^^ m 

fig- 4 

Collage, ipii. 

Pencil, pen, ink, and collaged elements (including a fragment of the 

invitation to the exhibition of Chagall's Jewish Theater murals) on 

paper, ^4. 2x 2y.p cm (1$ -Ik x ii inches). 

Musee national d'art moderne. Centre Georges Pompidou. Paris. 

8 Susan Compton 

rectangle whose scalloped edge hints at the traditional canopy 
present at all Jewish weddings. Furthermore, he did not reduce 
his colors simply to shades ol white and black but connected 
the tableau with the frieze above the windows, The Wedding 
Table, by adding a tew arcs and lines of similar color. He even 
used touches of color in the ballerina's legs and in one ol the 
two tiny figures in the foreground. 

The different ways that Chagall painted dancers in his 
theater murals — the barely outlined figures oi Love on the 
Stage, the rounded forms of the Hasidic dancers of his 
Introduction with their delicately painted costumes, and the 
baroque figure in Dance herself, with her heavily modeled 
face — show his continuing fascination with a variety of styles. 
Shortly before beginning work on the murals he had studied 
paintings of dancers by Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova at 
the Nineteenth State Exhibition (1920). Brief entries in 
Stepanova's diary for November 1920 record several visits by 
Chagall to the show and his interest in their work, to the 
extent of his asking to visit their studio. '"' Her diary also gives 
her own verdict on her dancers — that they represented an 
impasse in her work — and Chagall must have hoped that his 
own stylistic inventions would serve as a model for the future 
of art. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that his murals 
had little chance of success with these artists, who, by the time 
he was able to exhibit them, were moving so decisively toward 
Constructivism.' Nevertheless, Chagall explored a style closer 
to theirs when he made an abstract Collage (fig. 4)"'' — not in 
1920, as he later signed it, but in 1921, when the exhibition of 
his theater murals took place (part of the invitation for that 
Twenty-Third State Exhibition of June 1921 is pasted on as one 
of the collage elements). The only Russian collages that 
resemble it in any way are by Rodchenko and Stepanova, dated 
1918 and 1919. Such flirtation with near abstraction is 
untypical of Chagall, but it shows how he remained open to 
different ways of creating art after he had finished work on the 

He was anxious for general recognition for the murals, and 
the June 1921 exhibition was held as a result of his own 
initiative. He wrote to the theater management shortly after he 
had finished the murals, assuring them that he had proved his 
love for Jews but that he equally loved Russians and other 
nationalities."* Expediently, he said that he wanted "the 
masses " to see the paintings; but he must have been anxious 
that artists should discuss them, as well as that his work should 
have official, as well as ethnic, approval. His Introd/zction to the 
Jewish Theater served a dual purpose, as a manifesto for his art 
and also for the new theater itself. Beciiuse the murals were not 
made for exhibition per se — in contrast to the installations by 
Puni, Lissitzky, and Kandinskii discussed earlier — Chagall 
was so anxious that they should be considered as works of art 
that he made sure that they were shown to the general public 
as soon as possible. 

Chagall's theater murals, though on the whole not very 
abstract, are not very realistic, as might be expected in view of 
his early closeness to Evreinov. In the mural Introduction, the 
abstract geometric elements that form the background double 
as screens, partially eclipsing some figures, musical 
instruments, and even an angel trumpeter — a somewhat 
"realistic" effect that is counterbalanced by the deliberate 
incompleteness of the main figures, which are missing heads or 
legs, arms or hands. It is as though, like the elements of his 
Collage, they were simply components in the artist's repertoire. 
Paradoxically, however, these imperfect figures create an 
illusion of a reality that is more convincing to a viewer from 
the modern world than any of the socialist pageantry that was 
to become the norm in Soviet Russia within a decade, and the 
murals survived in place until 1937, longer than the so-called 

Formalist art of Malevich, Rodchenko, Lissitzky, or 
Kandinskii. What saved Chagall, perhaps, is that almost 
everything that is represented in the murals is sufficiently 
lifelike for viewers to recognize them: the three principal 
figures (Efros presenting Chagall to Granovskii, the director of 
the theater); the details of their everyday world, such as the 
somewhat Cubist glass of milk being served by the caretaker 
(who is described in h\y Life "); the musicians throughout the 
mural, modeled on the real musicians in the theater; and the 
actors portrayed in Chagall's rainbow-colored fantasy in the 
right-hand section of the mural. Here — literally at a higher 
level — Shakespeare's Hamlet (for such is the figure behind 
the cow^°) points back to the dancers at a Hasidic wedding 
(which Chagall also describes in My Life"'). In the foreground 
the artist's wife, Bella (herself an aspiring actress) and their 
little daughter, Ida, applaud this new world that extends to the 
very edge of the mural. In the bottom-right corner it ends in a 
witty image of a Jewish villager (the artist himself?) urinating 
on an unclean pig — a separate, rectangular picture that 
Chagall repeated on a small scale in black and white while he 
was living in Berlin.*'" 

Chagall must have been delighted to learn that the canvases 
finally found their permanent home in the State Tret'iakov 
Gallery, where they can be considered as statements not simply 
of his birthright but of his achievement as an artist. This is 
particularly significant because Chagall resisted attempts to 
allow himself to be classed as an exclusively Jewish painter. 
His friend the Hebrew poet Hayim Nakhman Bialik sought 
his advice when a new art museum for Tel Aviv was being 
planned in 1931, and Chagall fought for an international 
collection rather than a museum limited to art by Jewish 
artists who had settled in Palestine."' And when he founded his 
own Museum of the Biblical Message in 1973 in Nice, near his 
adopted home in the South of France, he expressed the wish 
that religious art by painters and sculptors of all nationalities 
should be shown in exhibitions there. "^ In 1921, a review of the 
exhibition of the murals claimed that Chagall's Introduction to 
thejeu'ish Theater represented an "identity crisis of tragic 
dimensions, a point at which any word and any talk whatsoever 
would be as out-of-place as at somebody's deathbed." To the 
reviewer, the tragedy was that the artist lacked the means "to 
reproduce the unending complexity of each single atom of our 
world, on which the eyes of our contemporaries are fixed. ""' But 
Chagall had already found that pertinent references to the real 
world can make art more powerful — and certainly more 
accessible — than pure abstraction or strict naturalistic 
representation. As he demonstrated throughout his career, the 
world of art reflects a world of another dimension that cannot 
be revealed through geometry but is embodied in love. His 
position was surprisingly similar to the conclusion reached by 
Gleizes and Metzinger: "Henceforth by the study of all the 
manifestations of physical and mental life, the painter will 
learn to apply them. But if he ventures into metaphysics, 
cosmogony, or mathematics, let him content himself with 
obtaining their savour, and abstain from demanding of them 
certitudes which they do not possess. At the back of them he 
finds nothing but love and desire."** 

Chagall's Auditorium I 9 


1. See Alexandra Shatskich [Aleksandra Shatskikh], "Marc 
Chagall and the Theater," in Christoph Vitali, ed.. Marc 
Chagall: The Russian Years 1906-1922, exh. cat. (Frankfurt: 
Schirn Kunsthalle, 1991), p. 80. This is the source that I have 
used throughout for facts on the theater. The company is often 
referred to in the literature as the State Jewish Kamerny 
Theater; kamerny is Russian for "chamber." 

2. For Efros's account of Chagall's murals and the production, 
see his essay, "The Artists of the Granovsky Theater," from 
Iskusstvo, vol. 4, nos. 1-2 (1928), pp. 62-64, trans, in Vitali, 
Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 1906— 1922, p. 91. The 
monograph that Efros had co-authored was A. Efros and la. 
Tugendkhol'd, Iskusstvo Marka Shagala (Moscow: Helikon, 
1918). A new translation appears in this book on pages 134—43. 

3. Marc Chagall, Ma Vie, preface by Andre Salmon, trans, from 
the Russian to French by Bella Chagall (Paris: G. Charensol, 
1931); reissued in 1957, and trans, from the French to English 
by Dorothy Williams as My Life (New York: Oxford University 
Press, 1989). For the earlier history of this text, see Susan 
Compton, Marc Chagall, My Life — My Dream: Berlin and Paris 
1922-1940 {Mwrnch.: Prestel/New York: Te Neues Publishing 
Company, 1990), p. 196. 

4. Chagall, My Life, p. 160. There are subtle differences 
between this text and Chagall's lesser-known version, 
published in English translation from the Yiddish original (in 
The Jewish World, vol. 2 [1928]), as "My Work in the Jewish 
Kamerny Theatre," in Aleksandr Kamensky, Chagall: The 
Russian Years 19OJ-1922, trans, from the French by Catherine 
Phillips (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), pp. 359-60. 

5. James Johnson Sweeney describes the ceiling in his Marc 
Chagall, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 
1946), p. 46; and Shatskich, citing the unpublished memoirs of 
A. V. Asarkh-Granovskaia, identifies the subject as "Flying 
Lovers" in her essay in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 
1906— 1922, p. 88 (note 6). This interpretation strengthens Ziva 
Amishai-Maisels's identification of the theme of some of the 
murals as being inspired by the play The Dybbuk (see note 17 

6. The company had moved at the end of 1921 to Malaia 
Bronnaia Street, but still used the theater at Bol'shoi 
Chernychevskii Lane for studio productions until 1924. See 
Shatskich 's essay in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 
1906-1922, pp. 80-81. 

7. The project is discussed and illustrated in Sweeney, Marc 
Chagall, pp. 44-48. 

8. Tyshler's part in saving the murals was recalled by 
Granovskii's widow, A. V. Asarkh-Granovskaia, in conversation 
with Alexandra Shatskich in 1975; see Shatskich's essay in 
Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 1906-1922, p. 81. 

9. The canvases, which were no doubt regarded unfavorably at 
that time as "Formalist," were rolled up and stored under the 
stage in the summer of 1937 and, from 1950, were left rolled up 
in the State Tret'iakov Gallery storeroom. See Shatskich's essay 
in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 1906-1922, p. 81. 

10. V. V. Kandinskii, Tekst khudozhnika (Stupeni): 2<^ reproduktsii 
s kartin 1902-191"/ gg. 4 vin'etki (Moscow: Izdanie Otdela 
Izobrazitel'nykh Iskusstv Narodnogo Komissariata po 
Prosveshcheniiu, 1918), a Russian translation of Kandinskii's 
RUckblicke, /(?0/-/^/j (Berlin: Der Sturm [1913]). 

1 Sman Cmnpum 

11. Bella Chagall's memoirs were first published as Brenendicke 
Licht (New York: Book League of the Jewish Peoples Fraternal 
Order, 1945) — trans, into English by Norbert Guterman as 
Burning Lights (New York: Schocken Books, 1946) — and Di 
Ershte bagegenish (New York: 1947); the text was trans, into 
French by Ida Chagall as Lumieres allumees (Paris: Gallimard, 
1973), then trans, from the French into English by Barbara 
Bray as First Encounter (New York: Schocken Books, 1983). 

12. Tugendkhol'd described Chagall's art as like that of a child 
in the monograph that he co-authored with Efros (see note 2 
above). See also J. P. Hodin's 1949 interview, "Marc Chagall: 
In Search of the Primary Sources of Inspiration," in 

The Dilemma of Being Modern: Essays on Art and Literature 
(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956), p. 43. 

13. Photographs of the interiors by Puni and Kandinskii are 
reproduced in Thirty -Seventh Biennale di Venezia: Environment. 
Participation. Cultural Structures, exh. cat., vol. i (Milan: Alfieri, 
1976), p. 189. 

14. Lissitzky's diagram of his "Proun Room" at the exhibition 
hall of the Lehrter Bahnhof is reproduced in Sophie Lissitzky- 
Kiippers, El Lissitzky: Life. Letters. Texts, Helene Adwinckle and 
Mary Whittal, trans. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968), 
fig. 189; a translation of his account of the room from the 
periodical G (July 1923) is given there on p. 365. 

15. For Kandinskii's room, see Clark V. Poling, "Kandinsky at 
the Bauhaus in Weimar, 1922-1925," in Kandinsky: Russian and 
Bauhaus Years I9i^-I9^j, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. 
Guggenheim Museum, 1983), pp. 40-41. 

16. Chagall, in Hodin interview (see note 12 above), p. 44. 

17. For this interpretation, see Ziva Amishai-Maisels, 
"Chagall's Murals for the State Jewish Chamber Theater," in 
Vitali, Alarc Chagall: The Russian Years 1906— 1922, pp. 122—25. 
She connects the scheme with An-ski's The Dybbuk, which the 
author apparently gave Chagall to read, wanting him to design 
sets and costumes for it. 

18. See John E. Bowlt, The Silver Age: Russian Art 0/ the Early 
Twentieth Century and the "World of Art" Group (Newtonville, 
Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1979), opposite p. 125, for a 
photograph of the interior of the Comedian's Halt. Franz 
Meyer gives the name as Prival Komediante Theater in his 
Marc Chagall: Life and Work (New York: Abrams, n.d.), 

p. 289; this is corrected to Comedian's Halt in Matthew Frost, 
"Marc Chagall and the Jewish State Chamber Theater," in 
Russian History, vol. 8, p. 92. 

19. See Frost, ibid., p. 92, note 10, where he cites a letter from 
Mme A. A. Evreinova to John E. Bowlt, April 14, 1980, stating 
that To Die Happy was written by Sasha Chernyi and set to 
music by Nikolai Evreinov. 

20. Nikolai Nikolaevich Evreinov, 1879-1953; the essay is by 
Alexandra Shatskich in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 
1906-1922, pp. 76-88. 

21. Matthew Frost states that Chagall's designs for Gogol' 's 
Marriage and The Gambler of 1919 were also requested by 
Evreinov (see Matthew Frost, "Marc Chagall and the Jewish 
State Chamber Theater," in Russian History, vol. 8, p. 92); 
the plays were to be staged at the Hermitage Studio Theater 
in St. Petersburg, which was founded on the initiative of 
Meierkhol'd. See Susan Compton, Chagall, catalogue for 1985 
exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Royal 
Academy of Arts, London (New York: Abrams, 1985), 

cat. no. 61 and fig. 40, pp. 198-99. 

22. Chagall, My Life, pp. 160-61. 

23- For an account of the Old Time (or Antique) Theater, 
see Bowlt, The Silver Age, pp. ii6— 17. 

24. Color reproductions of Dobuzhinskii's work are included 
in Alia Gusarova, Mstislav Dobi/zhiiiskii: Zhiivpis': Gvciphika. 
Teatr (Painting. Graphic Art. Stage Design) (Moscow: 
Izobrazitel'noe Iskusstvo, 1982). For his influence on Chagall, 
see "The Russian Background" in Compton, Chagall, p. 32. 

25. Dobuzhinskii is identified as the director ot the State 
School of Art when it opened at 10 Voskresenksaia Street, 
Vitebsk, on January 30, 1919, in Kamensky, Chagall: The 
Riiisian Years 1907-1922, p. 275. 

26. Bakst is described as an "actor in lite" in Bowlt, The Silver 
Age, p. 225. Chagall's account of Bakst (in My Life, pp. 89—93) 
hints at the "double standard" of his teacher, who changed his 
name from Rozenberg to Bakst and then his religion, 
converting to Lutheranism to marry in 1903. Bakst's reversion 
to Judaism after his divorce in 1910 may account for Chagall's 
enigmatic paintings Circumcision and The Holy Family, 
reproduced in Kamensky, Chagall: The Russian Years 1907-1922, 
pp. 35 and 43. Bakst's set for Narcisse is reproduced in color in 
The Decorative Art of Leon Bakst (London: The Fine Art Society, 
1913; reprinted, New York: Dover Paperback, 1972), plate 34; 
costumes for the Bacchantes from Narcisse, plates 31 and 54. 

27. Evreinov's most radical theatrical invention was his 
monodrama (a play with a single character — the writer 
himself), which was published in Nikolai Kul'bin, ed., StiiiJiia 
impressionistov, (St. Petersburg: N. I. Butkovskoi, 1910). It is 
discussed in Susan Compton, The World Backwards: Russian 
Futurist Books 7^/2-/7 (London: The British Library, 1978), 

pp. 46-49. The title of Chagall's mural Love on the Stage 
resembles the title of Evreinov's monodrama The Representation 
of Love. 

28. Evreinov summarized the article in his French text, 
referring to it as "Apologie de la theatralite," and citing its 
publication in 1908 in a newpaper that he calls Le Matin (he 
gives no further details, but presumably he means the Russian 
newspaper Utro Rossii); see Nicolas Evreinoff [sic], Histoire du 
Theatre russe (Paris: Editions du Chene, 1947), pp. 375—77- 

29. In Compton, Chagall, these paintings are reproduced and 
discussed in detail: The Dead Man, 1908, cat. no. 3, pp. 155-56; 
Russian Wedding, 1909, cat. no. 9, p. 160; Birth, 1910, cat. no. 
10, pp. 160—61. The Dead Man is now in the collection of the 
Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 
Paris. The exhibition of works by pupils at the Zvantseva 
School took place in the offices oi Apollon, April 20-May 9, 

30. V. Ivanov, "Dve stikhii v sovremennom simvolizme 
(Two Elements of Contemporary Symbolism)," in Zolotoe riinn, 
April/May 1908. 

31. Birth (Kunsthaus, Zurich) is discussed turther in Compton, 
Chagall, p. 34, cat. no. 10, p. 161. 

32. The Drunkard (collection of Hans Neumann, Caracas) is 
reproduced in color in Kamensky, Chagall: The Russian Years 
1907-1922, p. 321, with the date given as 1921; Meyer, following 
the inscription on the canvas, dates the painting 1911— 12. 
Chagall repeated the composition in a gouache, painted around 
1923, reproduced in color in The First Russian Show: A 
Commemoration of the Van Diemen Exhibition Berlin 1922, exh. cat. 
(London: Annely Juda Fine Art, 1983), p. 90. 

33. The Wedding (Musee national d'art moderne. Centre Georges 
Pompidou, Paris), is reproduced in color and dated 1910 in 
Meyer, Chagall, p. 113. 

34. Birth (The Art Institute of Chicago) is reproduced and 
discussed in Compton, Chagall, cat. no. 18, pp. 166-67. That 
entry was written before the publication of the letter and 
sketch of the composition sent by the artist to the secretary of 
the World of Art exhibiting society, which indicates that he 
had sent the canvas to Moscow; see M. Chagall, "Letter to 

K. V. Kandaurov of November 14, 1911," in 'Vitali, Marc 
Chagall: The Russian Years 1906-1922, pp. 144-45. The same 
picture seems to have been shown at the Salon des 
Independants in 1913. 

35. The Fiddler (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, on loan from 
the P. A. Regnault collection, Netherlands State Collection) is 
reproduced in color in Compton, Chagall, p. 75. 

36. A. V. Lunacharskii, in Parizhskii vestnik, no. 47, 
November 23, 1912. The story of Edward Sormus is mentioned 
in R. C. Williams, Artists in Revolution (London: Scolar, i^Jj), 
pp. 53 and 210 (note 50), but the name is transliterated there as 
Eduard Syrmus. For the connection between this painting and 
Dobuzhinskii's post-1905 revolutionary art, see Compton, 
Chagall, p. 33. Note also that after the October Revolution in 
1917, Lunacharskii was the commisar who authorized Chagall's 
official appointment. 

37. G. Apollinaire, "Rotsoge; au peintre Chagall," exh. cat. in 
Der Sturm, Berlin, vol. 5 (May 1914), p. 19; English trans, in 
Sweeney, Chagall, p. 102. Chagall's work was exhibited at the 
gallery Der Sturm in a two-person show with Alfred Kubin in 
May 1914; his solo exhibition was in June. 

38. GuiUaume Apollinaire, Apollinaire on Art: Essays and 
Reviews 1902— 1918, LeRoy C. Breunig, ed., Susan Suleiman, 
trans. (New York: Viking Press, 1972), p. 400. 

39. George T Noszlopy identifies the head as modeled on 
"Apollinaire 's famous 'Roman profile' . . . while it follows 
the iconography of the Beardless Janus, a Roman coin in the 
Bibliotheque nationale, Paris." The line that he refers to 
(the original French is "Ton pere fut un sphinx et ta mere une 
nuit") is from "Le Larron" (The thief), in Alcools. See Noszlopy, 
"Apollinaire, Allegorical Imagery and the Visual Arts," Forum 
for Modern Language Studies, vol. 9, no. i (January 1973), 

pp. 72—73, note 91. 

40. Homage to Apollinaire, 1911-12 (Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 
Eindhoven), reproduced and discussed in Compton, Chagall, 
cat. no. 22, p. 170. 

41. See Angelica Zander Rudenstine, The Guggenheim Museum 
Collection: Paintings 1880-194^ (Ne'^' York: Solomon R. 
Guggenheim Museum, 1976), p. 64. 

42. Blaise Cendrars, "Contrastes" (October 1913), Du monde 
entier au coeur du monde (Paris: Denoel, 1947), pp. 56—57; English 
trans, in Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the 
Avant-Garde in France. 188$ to World War I, rev. ed. (London: 
Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 337. 

43. Gabriel Arbouin [pseudonym tor Guilhuime Apollinaire], 
"Devant I'ideogramme d'Apollinaire," Les Soire'es de Paris, 

no. 26/27 (July-August 1914), p. 383. 

44. Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Du Cubisme (Paris: 
Eugene Figuiere, 1912), here quoted in English from Albert 
Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Cubism (London/Leipzig: T. Fisher 
Unwin, 1913), p. 26. 

45. See note 38 above. 

46. Adam and Eve, 1912 (St. Louis Art Museum), reproduced 
and discussed in Compton, Chagall, cat. no. 26, pp. 173—74. 

Chagall's Auditorium I 1 1 

47- Examples of these paintings by Popova are reproduced in 
Angelica Zander Rudenstine, ed., The George Costakis Collection: 
Russian Avant-Garde Art (New York and London: Thames and 
Hudson, 1981). 

48. G. Apollinaire, review of the Salon des Independants, 
March 25, 1913, quoted in English translation in Virginia Spate, 
Orphism: The Evolution of Non-Figurative Painting in Paris 
ipio-ipi4 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 73. 

49. See, for example, Sherry A. Buckberrough, Robert Dela/inay: 
The Discovery of Simultaneity, Studies in the Fine Arts: The 
Avant-Garde, no. 21 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 
pp. 149-50. 

50. Orphe//s (private collection) is reproduced in Meyer, Chagall, 
p. 212. 

51. Spate, Orphism, p. 61. 

52. See Apollinaire: Selected Poems, trans, and with mtro. by 
Oliver Bernard (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1965); 
Dufy's Orpheus is reproduced on p. 19. 

53. G. Apollinaire, Le Bestiaire. ou Cortege d'Orphee (Paris: 
Deplanche, 1911). 

54. In Compton, Chagall, see: Visit to the Grandparents (private 
collection), cat. no. 50, p. 192; The Feast of the Tabernacles 
(private collection), cat. no. 51, pp. 192-93; Purim (Philadelphia 
Museum of Art, Louis E. Stern Collection), cat. no. 52, p. 193. 

55. These two sketches are reproduced in color in Kamensky, 
Chagall: The Russian Years ipoy-ipiz, p. 259. 

56. Ziva Amishai-Maisels, "Chagall and the Jewish Revival: 
Center or Periphery?" in Ruth Apter-Gabriel, ed.. Tradition and 
Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art 
1912-1928, exh. cat. (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1987), p. 89. 

57. Chagall had exhibited in group exhibitions including 

The Year 191$, Moscow, May 1915; Contemporary Russian Painting, 
St. Petersburg, 1916; Jack of Diamonds, Moscow, November 
1916; and Contemporary Russian Painting, St. Petersburg, 
November 1916— January 1917. See listings in Donald Gordon, 
Modern Art Exhibitions, /^oo-/p/d'(Munich: Prestel, 1974). 
Chagall's Over the Town (State Tret'iakov Gallery) was first 
shown at the last of these exhibitions, according to 
V. P. Lapshin, Khudozhestvennaia zhizn' Moskvy i Petrograda v 
ipiy godu (Artistic life of Moscow and Petrograd in the year 
1917) (Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1983), pp. 27 and 305. 

58. Like Chagall and Popova, Lentulov had studied in Paris at 
the Academie de la Palette in 1911. For reproductions of 
Lentulov 's paintings, see E. B. Murina and S. G. Dzhafarov, 
Aristarkh Lentulov (Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1990). 

59. I. A. Aksenov, Pikasso i okrestnosti (Picasso and environs) 
(Moscow: Tsentrifuga, 1917). 

60. The Apparition (collection of A. K. Gordeeva, 

St. Petersburg) is reproduced in color in Kamensky, Chagall: 
The Russian Years ipoj-1922, p. 287. 

61. Anywhere Out of This W^or/<^ (private collection) is reproduced 
in color in Kamensky, Chagall: The Russian Years 190J-1922, 

p. 249. The date 1915 and Western signature were added later 
by Chagall; Meyer dates the painting 1917— 18 in his Chagall, 
p. 264. Baudelaire gave the title of his prose-poem in English 
because the phrase was taken from Thomas Hood, "The Bridge 
of Sighs," as quoted in Edgar Allen Poe's Poetic Principle; see 
Charles Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil and Other Works (Les Fleurs du 
Mai et Oeuvres choisies), Wallace Fowlie, ed. (New York: Bantam 
Books, 1964), pp. 150-53. 

62. Al'tman's Anna Akhmatova, 1914 (State Russian Museum, 
St. Petersburg) is reproduced in color in Natan Al'tman. 
i88p-ip70 {Moscow. Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1978), unpaginated 
catalogue of an exhibition held at the State Bakhrushin 
Museum, Moscow, 1978. 

63. Shterenberg's Table with a Roll, 1919 (State Russian 
Museum, St. Petersburg) is reproduced in color in Phyllis 
Freeman, ed., Sharon McKee, trans., Soviet Art. ip20s and ipjos: 
Russian Museum. Leningrad (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 
1988), fig. 157, p. 151. 

64. Part of Aksenov's "Polemical Supplement" is trans, by 
Christine Thomas in A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, 
Reminiscences, Marilyn McCuUy, ed. (London: Arts Council of 
Great Britain/Thames and Hudson, 1981), pp. 113-18. 

65. See Grigori Kasovsky, "Chagall and the Jewish Art 
Programme," in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 
ipo6-ip22, p. 57. 

66. In March 1922, the Moscow League of Culture held an 
exhibition at the theater on Bol'shoi Chernychevskii Lane that 
included work by Al'tman and Shterenberg as well as Chagall's 
murals and costume and set designs. See Shatskich in Vitali, 
Marc Chagall: The Russian Years ipo6-ip22, p. 88. An earlier 
exhibition of the murals with Chagall's set and costume 
designs had taken place at the theater in June 1921. 

67. Gleizes and Metzinger, Cubism (1913 edition), pp. 32—33 
(see note 44). 

68. Gleizes and Metzinger, Du Ciihisme, trans, into Russian by 
E. Nizen (St. Petersburg, 1913). 

69. K. S. Malevich, novykh sistemakh v iskusstve (On new 
systems in art) (Vitebsk, 1919). A shortened version was issued 
in 1920, as 0^ Sezanna do suprematizma. Kriticheskii ocherk. 
(From Cezanne to Suprematism) ([Moscow}: Izdanie otdela 
Izobrazitel'nykh Iskusstv Narkomprosa [1920]). 

70. M. Chagall, "Letter to Pavel Davidovitch Ettinger 1920," 
in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years lpo6~ip22, pp. 73—75. 

71. Malevich unveiled his Black Square at the exhibition 
held in St. Petersburg in December 1915 at N. E. Dobychina's 
gallery; Chagall may have seen it, as he was working in the 
capital then. Malevich's display was dominated by Black 
Square, which he positioned high across a corner (not flat 
against a wall). The quotation is from Malevich, Ot kubizma i 
juturizma k suprematizmu. Novyi zhivopisnyi realizm (From 
Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism. The new painterly 
realism) (Moscow, 1916), the third edition of the artist's 
statement that Malevich issued for, as trans, in John E. 
Bowlt, ed. and trans., Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory 
and Criticism ip02—ip^4, rev. ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 
1988), p. 133. 

72. The Tenth State Exhibition: No>iobjectii'e Creation and 
Suprematism was held in April 191 9 in Moscow. 

73. See Susan Compton, "Kazimir Malevich: A Study of the 
Paintings, 1910-1935" (Ph.D. diss.. University of London, 
Courtauld Institute of Art, 1982), pp. 217-18. 

74. See V. Stepanova, "Diary entries on the XlXth State 
Exhibition," Sieben Moskauer Kunstler I Seven Moscow Artists 
ipio-ip^o, exh. cat. (Cologne: Galerie Gmurzynska, 1984), 
pp. 257 and 260. There is an installation photograph of this 
exhibition on p. 253; Stepanova's Dancers and Figures, shown at 
the exhibition, are reproduced in color on pp. 275, 281, 288, 
and 289. 

1 2 Susan Com[)t(jn 

75- The debates on composition versus construction held in 
early spring 1921 in Moscow at the Institute of Artistic Culture 
(Inkhuk) are chronicled in Christina Lodder, Ri/ssian 
Constructivism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 
1983), pp. 83-94. 

76. Chagall's Collage (Musee national d'art moclernc, Centre 
Georges Pompidou, Paris) is reproduced in color in Kamensky, 
Chagall: The Russian Years ipo/~ip22, p. 313. 

77. Two collages by Rodchenko are reproduced in 

A. N. Lavrent'ev, A. M. Roclchenko/V. F. Stepanot'a (Mastera 
sovetskogo knizhnogo iskusstva {About soviet book art}) 
(Moscow: Kniga, 1989): Biirevestnik, 1919, fig. 51; and Bilet No. I, 
1919, fig. 63. Several collages by Stepanova (intended for the 
book Gly-Gly by A. Kruchenykh) are reproduced in Alexander 
Rodtschenko iind Warwara Stepanowa, the catalogue for an 
exhibition at the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg, 
and Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, 1983, pp. 213-15; 
those on pp. 213 and 214 are closest to Chagall's. 

78. M. Chagall, "Letter to the Management of the State Jewish 
Kamerny Theater," in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 
1906-1922, p. 89; the letter is dated 12/IL21 (February 12, 1921). 
A new translation appears in this book on page 173. 

79. Chagall, My Life, p. 158. 

80. See the caption to the detail ot the figure behind the 
cow's head at the far right of the mural, reproduced in Sweeney, 
Chagall, p. 45. The identification must have come from 
Mikhoels, the company's principal actor, who spent the year 
1942 in New York as a Soviet cultural emissary, or from 
Chagall, who lived in New York from 1941 to 1948. 

81. Chagall, My Life, p. 36. 

82. Ma)i with Pig, 1922-23, lithograph, edition of 35 copies, 
published by Paul Cassirer, Berlin; reproduced in Compton, 
Chagall, p. 258. 

83. For an account of Chagall's involvement with the project for 
an art museum at Tel Aviv, see Tami Katz-Frieman, 'Tounding 
the Tel Aviv Museum 1930-36," The Tel Aviv Museum Annual 
Review, vol. i (1982). A summary is given in the Chronology in 
Compton, Chagall, pp. 264-65. 

84. The Musee national message biblique Marc Chagall opened 
in Nice in 1973 to house a permanent collection of Chagall's 
biblical paintings; it also includes a space for temporary 
exhibitions and a concert/lecture hall. 

85. Alexander 'Vetrov, "On Chagall," from Ekran (November 
1921), Jerry Payne, trans., in 'Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian 
Years igo6-ig22, p. 93. The article is a review of the exhibition 
held earlier in the year. 

86. Gleizes and Metzinger, Cubism (1913), p. 64 (see note 44). 

Chagall's Auditorium I 1 3 


■ m * 






<2^ ^4^ r> 





1 4 Benjamin Harshav 

and Fictional Worlds 
in Painting 

Benjamin Harshav 

fig- 5 

Detail 0/ Introduction to the Yiddish Theater (cat. no. l). 


In November-December 1920, Marc Chagall designed the first 
production and painted murals for the new State Yiddish 
Chamber Theater in Moscow. The murals challenged the 
boundaries between stage and audience, the artist and the 
object of his painting, realism and abstraction, the religious 
past and secular present. They embodied the intersection of a 
quadruple revolution: revolution in the theater, revolution in 
painting, social and political revolution in Russia, and the 
Modern Jewish Revolution, which brought Jews into the 
center of European culture. 

It was a time ol upheaval. The old culture in Russia was 
swept away — many members of the intelligentsia had left or 
were terrorized — and these multiple revolutions were carried 
out by imaginative, ideological, and daring young people who 
believed in the reappraisal of all values and in the need for a 
new language of art. Their context was the intellectual and 
artistic fermentation at the beginning ol the twentieth century, 
which, encouraged by the new political and social order, moved 
from small avant-garde circles on the periphery of national 
cultures to their very center. 

By 1908, Cubism was established in Paris; in February 1909, 
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti launched Italian Futurism, which 
was soon disseminated throughout Europe; in 1912, 
Expressionism had crystallized in Germany and Imagism 
emerged in English poetry. In Russia, avant-garde creativity 
engulfed all the arts; the first manifesto of the Russian Cubo- 
Futurists appeared in 1912, a succession of radical trends 
revolutionized painting, and a wave of experiments 
transformed the Russian theater. To many artists, the political 
revolutions of" 1917 seemed allied to the creation of an entirely 
new civilization; they also led to government support tor 
innovation in all the arts. 

At the same time, the traditional Jewish world in Russia 
was uprooted. In August 1914, World War I broke out. By 
order of the Russian army, a million and a half Jews were 
expelled from their homes in the border areas, often with only 
twenty-four-hours' notice. Russia was losing the war on its 
front and the German army occupied large areas of Russian 
territory. In February 1917, a democratic revolution in 
Petrograd deposed the tsar. Over five million Russian Jews, 
confined tor a hundred and fifty years to a large geographical 
ghetto, the Pale of Settlement, were suddenly granted equal 
rights. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks took power. The 
liberation of the Jews — the last oppressed social "class" in 
Russia — was one of the exciting events in Revolutionary 
Russia and served as an exemplary case in the eyes of 
enlightened world opinion. Peace with the Germans was 
concluded; but Civil War broke out and raged for three years. 
For the first time in modern history, large-scale massacres of 
Jews erupted in the Ukraine, leaving about a hundred 
thousand dead and several hundred thousand homeless. 

Parallel to the advent of Modernism, a cultural renaissance 
swept through Jewish communities in Russia and elsewhere 
from the end of the nineteenth century. A powerful secular 
Jewish literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew, and Jewish 
political and cultural movements revitalized Jewish society, 
and were followed by the revival of folklore, music, painting, 
and theater. Painting in the European sense was forbidden in 
the Jewish tradition, but a new breed of secular Jewish painters 
entered the general European art scene; Chagall was the best 
known of them. Born in Russia in 1887, he studied art in St. 
Petersburg and spent the years between 1910 and 1914 in Paris. 
After a famous exhibition in Berlin, he returned to Russia, 
where he remained until 1922. Following the Bolshevik 
Revolution, he was appointed Commissar of Art in Vitebsk, 
where he established a People's Art School and invited some of 

Chagall: Postmodernism and Fictional Worlds in Painting j 1 5 

the best Russian artists as teachers; but the school was 
overwhelmed by the radical avant-garde (led by Kazimir 
Malevich and El Lissitzky) and Chagall moved to Moscow, 
where he accepted an invitation to design the sets for the first 
production of the new Yiddish Theater: three one-act plays by 
Sholem Aleichem. In a creative fury, he also painted murals for 
the walls, enclosing the whole theater in one Chagallian 

The State Yiddish Chamber Theater opened in Moscow on 
January i, 1921. Within a few years, it became one of the most 
esteemed theaters in Russia and in Europe. The English critic 
Huntley Carter called the theater "unequalled in Europe." 
Similar views were expressed when it toured Germany and 
Western Europe in 1928. 

The strength of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater lay in a 
combination of avant-garde art, a multimedia perception of the 
totality of a theater experience, and the evocation of a 
grotesque and emotive fictional world based on the exotic and 
vibrant Jewish past. As in Chagall's paintings, this fictional 
world added a mythological dimension to the mere formal 
innovations of the new, leftist theater. No doubt it was 
Chagall's vision that gave the theater this new direction and its 
inherent strength. The interaction of four creative minds — 
Chagall, Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish Theater's director 
Aleksei Granovskii, and the lead actor Mikhoels — in the 
context of the quadruple revolution resulted in a watershed 
event in painting and in theater. 

The Yiddish Theater was not intended to be a part of 
Jewish parochial culture. As Granovskii wrote in a 
programmatic brochure of 1919, "Yiddish theater is first of 
all a theater in general, a temple of shining art and joyous 
creation — a temple where the prayer is chanted in the Yiddish 
language."' Chagall, in his Leaves from My Notebook,' published 
in Moscow in 1922, boasted that the Jews, who had produced 
Christianity and Marxism for the world, would produce art for 
it as well; he took pride in the Modern Jewish Revolution, yet 
he did not have exclusively "Jewish" art in mind. Both Chagall 
and the theater he influenced understood that art needs not 
only form and ideology but a specific fictional world; for them, 
Jewish thematics were part of the authentic, concrete material 
that constitutes art — iinivenal art. 

This study is presented in two complementary parts: 
i) An essay in four chapters, which intends, first of all, to 
elucidate Chagall's murals and give the reader a sense of the 
character and history of the Yiddish Theater. Beyond that, 
however, this essay encompasses the nature and poetics of 
Chagall's art in the age of Modernism, and Chagall's relation to 
Jewish culture, especially to Yiddish language, which he spoke 
and in which he wrote poetry and essays; and 2) A selection of 
texts and documents, which includes two early books on 
Chagall and on the Yiddish Theater, memoirs, reviews, and 
discussions of the Yiddish Theater in time of Revolution. Most 
of these texts, written in several languages, are here translated 
for the first time into English. This section also includes the 
first translation into English of Chagall's own writings in 
Yiddish: his memoirs, poems, essays, and selected letters, all 
of which reveal a little-known side of his personality. 

A note to the reader 

In Yiddish, the word Yiddish means both "Yiddish" and 
"Jewish," the language and the nation (the same is true of the 
Russian word evreiskii). Therefore, in English "Yiddish" culture 
denotes "Jewish" culture as well (and vice versa), and the reader 
must keep both connotations in mind. The original Russian 
name for the theater was Gosudarstvenni Evreiskii Kamernyi 
Teatr (GOSEKT). Scholars, in translating the name into 
English, have used both State Jewish Chamber Theater and 
State Yiddish Chamber Theater to refer to the institution. I 
have chosen the latter translation here, because the defining 
trait of the theater was based on language rather than any 
national content. (Furthermore, another Jewish theater, 
HaBima, also emerged in Moscow at the time, but performed 
plays in Hebrew.) After 1924, the word "chamber" was dropped 
from GOSEKT's name. From then on, it was known simply as 
the State Yiddish Theater (GOSET). For simplicity's sake, in 
this essay the term Yiddish Theater is used for the institution 
throughout its lifespan. 

All quotations from other languages, except where noted, 
are translated from their original language by the author. 


This essay was written in a very short time, which included a 
trip to Moscow with my collaborator Barbara Harshav to study 
little-known archival sources. I would like to thank the staffs 
of the Russian archives where many extant documents of the 
Yiddish Theater (liquidated by Stalin in 1949) are kept in 
meticulous order: CGALI (Central State Archive for Literature 
and Art), its Director Natal'ia Borisovna Volkova, and the head 
of the reading room Elena Ermilovna Gafner; and the State 
Bakhrushin Museum, its Deputy Director Tat'iana Borisovna 
Klim, archivist of the Decoration Division Irina Naumovna 
Duksina, and the specialists at the Manuscript Division; as 
well as many friends in Moscow who helped with information 
and discussions, including Svetlana Dzhafarova, Assar Eppel, 
Aleksandr Kantsedikas, Grigorii Kazovskii, Boris Messerer, 
Aleksandra Shatskikh, and Sergei Tartakovskii. I also wish to 
thank the YWO in New York, in particular Marek Webb, 
Dina Abramovitch, Eleonor Mlotek, and Zachary Becker; as 
well as Yosl Birshteyn in Jerusalem, Nava Schreiber in New 
York, and especially Rachael Wilson at Yale. All of them were 
kind, knowledgeable, and helpful. Barbara Harshav, as always, 
improved the shape of my writing. Anthony Calnek was an 
understanding and demanding editor who pulled my scholarly 
text in reader-friendly directions. 

1 6 Benjamin Harshav 

chapter 1 : Observations on Chagall's Art 

A postmodernist in the age of Modernism 

Marc Chagall was the first conscious, even deliberate 
postmodernist. His meteoric rise and later devaluation, his 
strengths and his weaknesses are inherent in that principle of 
his art. Like a whirlwind he moved from one trend of the 
avant-garde to another, from one national context to another, 
absorbing some techniques and tendencies, then retreating into 
his own world. 

In his paintings we can iind cjuasi-geometric articulations 
of forms derived from Analytic Cubism; Orphism's 
predilection for circles in space; a Fauve-inspired exuberance 
for colors that overflow the boundaries of objects; the precise 
chromatic shapes of Suprematism; the dynamic movement and 
strong diagonal gestures of Futurism; pre-Expressionist 
deformations of human faces and figures; a dreamlike 
arrangement of objects in represented space, anticipating 
Surrealism; and even minute and multiple decorative 
ornaments (ornament was anathema to the avant-garde) typical 
of the Russian Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) movement in the 
beginning of the century. In Chagall's work, the seemingly 
disparate components fuse into one functional unity in each 
painting, often in an asymmetrical, uneasy, but ultimately 
justified balance. 

Chagall's paintings have, perhaps unfairly, been judged 
from a perspective of purism — the ascetic use of a well- 
delimited discourse of art. Thus, they have been termed 
"eclectic. " Today, in an age of postmodernism, we can surely 
question the validity of a "pure" language as the highest value 
in art or poetry. French Symbolism and its Anglo-American 
offshoots promoted the principle of "pure poetry," a suggestive, 
musical, even "magical" art, that focused on the "language" of 
poetry at the expense of anything that other kinds of discourse, 
such as prose, ideology, or philosophy, can do. The trends of art 
and literature that revolted against Symbolism in various 
European countries, beginning with the Italian Futurists, also 
promoted a pure language of art, no matter how "impure" the 
materials they used may have been. Yet, simultaneously, the 
purity of genres and artistic media was overruled, their 
boundaries deliberately broken: poetry became prosaic and 
dramatic, prose became lyrical, painting used words, and words 
themselves were used to create graphic images. Moreover, 
representatives of pure styles, such as Pablo Picasso or 
Malevich, were eclectic in diachrony: they changed their style 
every so often, while Chagall did not. 

The terms "Modernism" and "postmodernism" do not 
denote any single idea, essence, monolithic style, or defined 
Zeitgeist permeating all artists, all works, and all aspects of art 
in a given period. This is not the place for a careful analysis of 
the nature of such trends. Suffice it to say that Modernism 
experimented with all possibilities of the language of art; it 
produced a galaxy of trends, often in direct opposition to one 
another — some with particular labels (Futurism, 
Expressionism, Suprematism, Constructivism), some embodied 
in the work of unaffiliated artists (Paul Klee, Bertolt Brecht, 

At a certain point, the internal succession of Modernist 
trends tired of its own evolution, and the term 
"postmodernism" emerged in the 1970s.' But, since 
"Modernism" was not one essence, "postmodernism" could not 
be a unified phenomenon either. In architecture, for example, 
the Modernism of the Bauhaus and the International Style 
implied streamlined simplicity, functionality, cultural 
neutrality, and impersonality; hence the postmodernist interest 
in ornament, cjuotations from earlier styles, "impure" language, 
and the personal imprimatur of the architect. In literature, on 

the contrary, high Modernism meant elitist, difficult, 
metaphorical, and allusive poetry and fiction, while the 
reaction brought relaxation, more direct language, social 
engagement, and eclecticism. 

We may describe postmodernism as an attitude critical of, 
but also acutely aware of, the achievements of many Modernist 
trends, styles, and breakthroughs. Postmodernism, by its very 
name, implies the use of possibilities opened by Modernism — 
and closed as well, for if innovation is the overriding principle 
of art, then those explored possibilities were exhausted at the 
moment of their discovery. It also implies the relativization of 
all Modernist theories and styles, the evocation of earlier styles 
and masters,^ and the poetic license of eclecticism. Above all, it 
implies a personal voice dominating the functional integration 
of art. The importance of form is not ignored but, rather than 
being an impersonal style good for all themes and places, it is 
made specifically functional within each individual work of art 
and its context, culturally dependent, and subsumed under the 
unity and continuity of the artist's personal style and world. In 
these respects, Chagall was a postmodernist even as Modernism 
was unfolding. 

Of course, Chagall was a major figure in the age of 
Modernism. He shared some basic assumptions with most 
Modernist trends: an opposition to mimesis in the sense of 
directly depicting a scene in time and space; an opposition to 
"realism"; the deformation of represented figures and objects; 
the granting of autonomy to and foregrounding of all aspects of 
the language of art, such as spatial forms, geometric figures, or 
color. Without the successive Modernist trends, there would 
have been no Chagall. Yet, without Chagall in the general 
landscape, the Modernist age would be lacking something. As 
one critic put it, "We think of Marc Chagall as the painter-poet 
of the twentieth century. He shares this distinction only with 
Paul Klee. "' Chagall was not considered an innovator of any 
theoretically defined language of art — for his deformations of 
human figures, subversions of the laws and continuities of 
observed reality, dreamlike compositions, 2X\6. portmanteau 
figures were all innovations not in language but in the fictional 
world presented in art — yet this in itself was a new language. 
And at least for this reason he was a much more important and 
universal artist than recent attitudes have tended to allow. 

Chagall was never a group player, neither in an art group 
nor in any "Jewish" coterie; he was never perceived as a Cubist 
or Surrealist, or anything else, but only as "Chagall" — his 
personality defined the unity of his art. He came close to 
several of the new waves somewhat late, absorbed some lessons, 
and consumed anything that suited him into an all- 
encompassing fictional world, appropriated by Chagall under 
the construct of his own biography. 

The stations of Chagall's development as an artist 

Chagall was born in 1887 in a Yiddish-speaking suburb of 
Vitebsk, the capital of a Russian province in the Pale of 
Settlement (today, Belarus). He learned the fancy word 
khiidozhnik (artist) from a boy in his Russian high school, then 
went to study with a local artist, Yehuda (lurii) Pen. Pen was 
representative of the late-nineteenth-century Russian school of 
P eredvizhniki (Wanderers), who moved academic painting from 
Neoclassicism to a descriptive realism and populism. 
Furthermore, in his paintings he stressed Jewish topics and 
symbols and the so-called "genre of the trivial," drawn from 
the mores of Jewish daily life.'* Pen was aware of the renaissance 
in Jewish cultural ideology, subscribed to Martin Buber's 
Berlin journal O.v/ und West, and trained several Jewish artists, 
including El Lissitzky, who came from the neighboring 
Smolensk Province, and Osip Zadkin. From Pen, Chagall 
learned the basics of drawing and portrait painting, and 

Observaliom on Chagall's Art 17 

adopted an interest in Jewish themes. In 1921, Chagall wrote to 
Pen, "You raised a great generation of Jewish artists."" 

Ambitious and resourceful, Chagall left Pen, probably in 
1907, and went to St. Petersburg, where Russian art was a 
generation ahead. As a Jew, he could not live there legally,* but 
he managed somehow, and was supported by several Jewish 
patrons, notably the influential lawyer Maxim Vinaver,' one of 
the first Jewish members of the Russian Duma (parliament), 
who bought some of Chagall's paintings. In St. Petersburg, 
Chagall studied with Lev Bakst, a major figure of the 
aestheticist World of Art movement. Chagall was somewhat 
late (the journal World nj Art had ceased publishing in 1906), 
but he absorbed the general post-Fauve mood nonetheless. 

The prevalent intellectual movement in Russia at the 
beginning of the century was Symbolism, which was, in 
general terms, a movement of art for art's sake. At its center 
was Symbolist poetry, which combined emphases on poetic 
form^nd on the transcendental. By the time Chagall moved to 
St. Petersburg, Symbolist and aestheticist trends had spilled 
over into other arts. From the ivory tower of the poets. 
Symbolism had moved to such applied arts as theater sets and 
costumes; Sergei Dhiagilev's Ballet Russe showcased Bakst's 
stage designs and costumes, which eventually made a strong 
impact in Paris. 

From Bakst, Chagall learned the autonomous value of rich 
colors, minute and precise ornaments (which the influential art 
critic lakov Tugendkhol'd ascribed to a Jewish national 
ethos "O, and the desire to create decorations for the theater. In 
St. Petersburg, he was also impressed by the tendencies of 
Symbolism in painting, the value of folk art, and the penchant 
for oriental, mystical, and legendary scenes. He even wrote 
Russian Symbolist poems himself In this world of assimilated 
Jews merging with the Russian aristocratic intellectual scene, 
Chagall learned to fuse influences from Christian art with his 
Jewish motifs: elements of Christian iconography, Russian 
icons, and the l/ibok (a colorful Russian folk print with a 
narrative theme) meld in his work with images of the Jewish 
tradition. There were no contradictions inherent in these 
intersecting influences, for they all inhabited one 
consciousness. Indeed, that duality was at the foundation of 
modern Jewish culture in general. 

Chagall soon felt that both Pen and Bakst were old- 
fashioned — Chagall's Neoprimitivist"and absurd distortions 
of reality were beyond his teacher's understanding — and, 
sponsored by Vinaver, he set out for Paris, the art capital of the 
world. A radical, avant-garde revolution in poetry, painting, 
and graphics was already brewing in Russia in 1910, when 
Chagall departed. In his absence, several of his paintings were 
exhibited with the avant-garde, but he was far away and did 
not participate in the cathartic experience of the Russian Cubo- 
Futurists, Rayonists, and similar groups. 

In Paris, again somewhat late, Chagall deepened his links to 
Fauvism and discovered that Cubism was already an accepted 
norm. He adapted principles from those art movements to his 
own work, yet his poetic deformations and re-creation of the 
world of his past also anticipated Surrealism and 
Expressionism; they struck Guillaume Apollinaire as s//r- 
naturd. Chagall lived mostly among foreign artists, including 
tjuite a few Jews eager to embrace the latest discoveries in 
painting and arguing about the problematics of a new Jewish 
art. He soon came in contact with several young French poets 
and painters who were influential in the debates of the avant- 
garde: Blaise Ccndrars, Apollinaire, Andre Salmon, Robert and 
Sonia Delaunay, and others. Analytic Cubism had already been 
absorbed and artists were taking it in different directions. In 
response to the Delaunays' Orphism, Chagall too foregrounded 
the interplay of vivid colors and adopted the emblem of the 

Eiffel Tower and the circle motif In 1914, through Apollinaire 's 
mediation, he was discovered by Herwardt Walden, editor of 
the influential German avant-garde journal Der Sturm, who 
organized an exhibition in Berlin for Chagall, thus building 
him up as an important figure in the emergence of 
Expressionist painting. 

In 1914, Chagall traveled to Russia, married Bella 
Rosenfeld, and, because of the war, remained there. He 
returned to Vitebsk and refreshed his memory of his 
mythological city and his family's hometown of Lyozno, 
painting ostensibly realistic, detailed pictures of people, 
houses, cemeteries, and churches. In Petrograd (as St. 
Petersburg was called between 1914 and 1924), he was received 
as a Russian painter famous in Paris and Berlin. In 1918, the 
first book about him appeared (it was published in Berlin in 
a German translation in 1921); written by Abram Efros and 
Tugendkhol'd, it set the terms of Chagall criticism." 

After the Revolution, Chagall was appointed Commissar of 
Art in Vitebsk; for a while he was swept up by the winds of 
Revolution and mobilized his art in its cause, preparing 
propagandistic posters to be displayed around the city. He also 
established the People's Art School in Vitebsk, inviting some of 
the best painters of the day, including Lissitzky and Malevich, 
to teach in that provincial town. Those two were leaders of the 
radical and purist avant-garde and effectively pushed Chagall 
out of the school." Aside from the incompatibility of personal 
ambitions, Chagall was too eclectic and thematic (or 
"objective," to use Malevich's negative term) for their taste. 
Thus he came to Moscow and accepted the commission for the 
new State Yiddish Chamber Theater. 

Fictional world as a language of art 

Like the ideal of "pure poetry," pure art to the avant-garde 
meant the acceptance of one language that dominated each 
work. In their period of Analytic Cubism, for example, Picasso 
and Braque made each painting according to the Cubist views 
of perception and text formation; each painting was a new 
variant, a new exploration of possibilities within this 
framework. Similarly, Lissitzky was a master of stylized Jewish 
themes (influenced by Chagall) when illustrating Yiddish 
books, and rendered them in a stylistically pure way; but when 
he discovered Suprematism and went on to create his 
Constructivist Prouns. his paintings changed entirely, becoming 
pure executions of that Constructivist language. The same may 
be said of Jean Arp, Vasilii Kandinskii, Malevich, Vladimir 
Tatlin, and many others who developed the various 
contradictory styles of the avant-garde. For them, at any given 
moment, the poetics of their art was like a spoken language: 
one speaks either French or English or Russian, but not all in 
the same sentence. In Yiddish, however, one can speak several 
languages in the same sentence. Chagall appropriated the 
languages of art and placed them side by side in the same 
painting. He used various elements of Modernist discourse as 
strains of texture formation integrated in a complex, 
kaleidoscopic, and contrapuntal whole. 'We may call this 
attitude demonstrative eclecticism. 

In Chagall's work, all the strains of Modernist discourse 
that he learned in Vitebsk, St. Petersburg, and Paris are 
intertwined with another discourse: the evocation of what in 
literary theory is called 2. fictional world.''' His fictional world is 
based on selections of representative items from several 
historical and personal domains, refracted through the prism of 
a self-constructed, simplified, and mythologized biography. 
Chagall's adoption of a fictional world differs from its use in 
literature in one key sense: an author creates a separate fictional 
world, with its own characters and situations, for each novel, 
whereas in C^hagall's oeuvre, all paintings refer to one total 

1 8 Benjamin Harshav 

fictional universe, a construct outside of the paintings, but 
to which all those paintings refer. This fictional world was 
removed from and strange to the eyes of his audiences in 
St. Petersburg or Paris, which were attracted to its exoticism. 
Chagall's achievement — using a strange fictional world as a 
language — was understood by his fiiend Cendrars, who wrote 
of the artist: 

Suddenly he paints 

He takes a church and paints with a church 

He takes a cow and paints with a cow 

With a sardine 

With heads, hands, knives 

He paints with a hull's pizzle 

He paints with all the foul passions of a little Jewish city 

With all the heightened sexuality of provincial Russia '' 

Chagall himself expressed this idea on several occasions: 

Before the war of 1^14. I was accused of falling into "literature." 
Today people call me a painter of fairy tales and fantasies. Actually, 
my first aim is to construct my paintings architecturally — exactly as 
the Impressionists and Cubists have done in their own fashion and by 
using the same formal means. The Impressionists filled their canvases 
with patches of light and shadow, the Cubists filled them with cubes, 
triangles, and cones. I try to fill my canvases in some way with objects 
and figures treated as forms . . . sonorous forms like sounds . . . 
passionate forms designed to add a new dimension which neither the 
geometry of the Cubists nor the patches of the Impressionists can 
achieve. "" 

In this statement, he defines his goals not in terms of ideology, 
autobiography, or national nostalgia but of composition: "to fill 
my canvases." The "objects and figures" of his fictional world 
are seen as "forms" that fulfill the same function as 
Impressionist light and shadow or Cubist cubes and cones. 

Critics are often amazed at the wealth of topics, figures, and 
objects presented in Chagall's paintings. As Norbert Lynton 

His subjects outreach any listing: birth, death, hardship, contentment, 
domesticity, isolation, social events, the longings and the delights of 
love, rabbis and poets, family. Bella, their daughter Ida, Wava. 
himself in many guises, crucifixions of Christ and others, the Russian 
Revolution, the Old Testament, angels. The Magic Flute, Orpheus, 
Daphnis and Chloe, the circus, acrobats, cows, cocks, donkeys, fish, 
clocks, most of these with and without violins, flowers. Vitebsk. Paris. 
the Eiffel Tower It is best not even to start imagining the other possible 
lists, of the materials he worked in. the many functions his art serves, 
the art and artists that he has allied himself to from early ikons to 
Modernists via shop-signs and ancient symbols, lest our heads spin off 
our shoulders in precisely the way he describes.'' 

Yet for the most part those various items are not depictions of 
individual objects in the world but represent several 
recognizable domains throughout Chagall's art: old Jews of the 
recent religious past, as seen from the distance of a secular 
generation; Christian officials and peasants of the village; his 
own, invented "Vitebsk " as the symbolic small town of a 
distant Jewish world; another version of "Vitebsk," with its 
churches symbolizing provincial Russia; animals in that world, 
often humanized; his child-bride Bella and loving couples; 
Jesus Christ as the suffering Jew; Paris with the emblematic 
Eiffel Tower and the window of his studio; and, later in his 
career, anonymous Jewish masses, crossing the Red Sea or 
facing the Holocaust; and the world of the Bible. All those 
domains were internalized as the fictional universe of one 

individual, carried around the globe in the artist's memor}' and 

Chagall's contemporary Yisoskhor Rybak painted Cubist 
synagogues of different towns; Chagall placed all objects and 
persons in his imaginary Vitebsk, making them elements of the 
painter-poet's memory and imagination. Only a few paintings 
(especially in certain periods of his work) were made as direct 
depictions of objects in nature. Rather, nature was reduced to a 
few individuals, such as his flower bouquets, a river 
representing time, and the colorful sky. His repeated personal 
world consisted of Bella and an occasional image of his parents; 
he painted his brother and sisters only once or twice (he did 
not use them as part of his language). After Bella's death, she 
continued to appear as the image of love. So did his common- 
law wife Virginia Haggard and their son David, in a Christian 
emblem of mother and son. 

In Chagall's paintings, individuals of these fictional 
domains appear as modular units in a large mosaic. Their^ 
boundaries often melt and several adjacent individuals overlap 
and interact in what we may caW portmanteau figures: man and 
animal; Christ and a praying Jew and Chagall himself; 
geometric forms, patches of color, and the human body; the 
Eiffel Tower with human legs. The repetitive use of such 
individuals, their appearance as emblematic representatives of 
specific fictional domains, and the general paucity of new items 
turned them into a recognizable Chagallian vocabulary. In 
Paris during the teens this fictional world as a language of art 
attracted great attention. Art, to some, seemed to have been 
reduced to innovations in form, two-dimensional space, color, 
and composition. But in Chagall's paintings an authentic, 
persistent world, so exotic, whimsical, and different from our 
own, appeared. This successful reception was repeated in Berlin 
in 1914, in Russia during World War I and the Revolutionary 
period, and in France after Chagall's return in 1923. 

Attention to this world was reinforced by the painter's 
ambivalent perception of it. His images ranged from the 
grotesque to the sentimental, transformed through a series of 
drastic, antirealistic devices. Spectators and critics were 
tempted to construct "explanations" or conjectures — often as 
shaky as the figures themselves — and shift from direct 
sensuous painterly values to the domain of meaning and 
ideology. His work was often perceived as a forerunner of 
Surrealism, which shifted the focus of painting from the 
medium to the subconscious world of the painter and the 
presentation of unrealistic, fantastic spaces. Chagall, the re- 
creator of a lost world, became the "poetic" painter, the painter 
of a social or personal dreamworld, the surrealist, the visionary, 
the mystic, the master of a chaotic subconscious, or the naive 
narrator of a strange biography, for which he sometimes 
supplied stories. For example, in My Life, written in 1923, 
Chagall related a visit to Lyozno in which he found his 
grandfather sitting on the roof, the source for the image in the 
1908 painting The Dead Man. Whether the story is apocryphal 
is immaterial; the salient point is Chagall's attempt to 
domesticate the unrealistic events of his painting in "facts" or 
psychological attitudes, as did many of his critics. Ironically, if 
successful, this would explain away the very effect on which 
the painting depends; it would turn his art into realistic 

Many Modernist trends promoted the impersonal in art and 
poetry, suppressing the private emotions and biography of the 
individual artist in favor of the creation of independent 
aesthetic objects and innovation in the language of art: at one 
time, Russian Futurists did not sign their texts; Cubists 
emphasized the impersonal style of art; T. S. Eliot wrote of the 
"expression oi significant emotion, emotion which has its life in 
the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art 

Observations on Chagall's Art 19 

is impersonal""'; later in the century, Structuralists and 
Deconstructionists excluded the author from the 
understanding of his or her own text. 

Chagall promulgated an opposite view. In his art, personal 
biography is dominant and the depicted world is determined 
subjectively. Chagall thematized his biography in his art and 
writings and made it the arbiter of his authentic style. The 
justification for combining heterogeneous elements of style and 
reality was provided by the accidental, biographical unity of 
the artist's consciousness. To be sure, this individual experience 
contained public, basic stereotypes about the domains he 
evoked; the mystery of mundane life; the transformation of the 
Jews; the sad decline and mental strength of old, religious 
Jewry; the image of the provincial Russian town; and the 
depth, irrationality, and mysterious warmth of folkways and 
conventions. But Chagall sought to convince us that those were 
parts of his own, personal biography, and his self-conscious 
naivete justified the unsophisticated perceptions of that world. 

Since the language of Chagall's art is based on his life and 
fictional world, treatment of those rather than geometric forms 
became the focus of critical attention; thus, deformations of 
figures are discussed not for their own sake (as forms in space), 
and color is discussed not for its autonomous expressive values, 
but for what they do to the fictional world. A scholar of 
Chagall's art is compelled to study his biography and cultural 
context as primary sources of his language, iconography, and 
meaning. Jewish elements too are part of the language with 
which he forms a painting and expresses his emotions on love 
or the mysteries of life. This does not make him an exclusively 
"Jewish" artist any more than William Faulkner is an 
exclusively "Southern " writer; in both, the local specificity is 
the way they see the world — it becomes the "language" of 
their universally valid art. 


The theory of simultaneity in art and the interpenetration of 
planes was promoted, somewhat crudely, in Italian Futurism. 
In a manifesto for a 1912 exhibition in Paris, The Exhibitors to 
the Pz/blic, the Futurists stated: 

//; painting a person on a balcony, seen from inside the room, u 'e do not 
limit the scene to what the scjii are frame of the window renders visible: 
but we try to render the sum total of visual sensations which the person 
on the balcony has experienced: the sun-bathed throng in the street, the 
double row of houses which stretch to right and left, the bef lowered 
balconies, etc. This implies the simultaneousness of the ambient, and. 
therefore, the dislocation and dismemberment of objects, the scattering 
and fusion oj details, freed from accepted logic, and independent from 
one another. " 

The last sentence applies to Chagall's art as well. In his work, 
however, it is not the consciousness of a depicted figure but of 
the artist himself that motivates such a "dismemberment of 
objects." Furthermore, a painting by Chagall does not 
represent one momentary experience, but involves different 
modules from several times and places, stored in the fictional 
repertoire inhabiting his mind. 

Chagall's perception finds an affinity in theories of the 
Yiddish Introspectivist poets, who wrote their manifesto in 
New York in 1919. They determined that all topics and 
domains of modern life and culture were legitimate subjects for 
poetry, provided they were presented "in an introspective and 
fully individual manner": 

For us, everything is "personal. " Wars and revolutions, Jewish 
pogroms and the workers' movement. Protestantism and Buddha, the 
Yiddish school and the Cross, the mayoral elections and a ban on our 

language — all these may concern us or not, just as a blond woman 
and our own unrest may or may not concern us. If it does concern us. 
we write poetry: if it does not. we keep quiet. In either case we write 
about ourselves because all these exist only insofar as they are in us. 
insofar as they are perceived introspectively.'° 

Thus, the social and political world are part of the artist's 
internalized panorama. Experience cannot be isolated or 
limited to the here and now of an externally observed scene: 

When the poet, or any person, looks at a sunset, he may see the 
strangest things u 'hich, ostensibly, have perhaps no relation to the 
sunset. This, the series of associations and the chain of suggestions, 
constitutes truth, is life, much as an illusion is often more real than the 
cluster of external appearances we call life. . . . We insist that the poet 
should give us the authentic image that he sees in himself and give it in 
such a form as only he and no one else can see it. '' 

The Introspectivists wrote that "the poet must really listen 
to his inner voice, observe his internal panorama — 
kaleidoscopic, contradictory, unclear or confused as it may 
be."" Although Chagall was not connected to the 
Introspectivists, his cultural background and perceptions were 
similar to theirs. This may have something to do with the 
Yiddish language, which was their common native tongue. 
Yiddish, as has been well argued by ideological Yiddishist 
linguists, especially Max Weinreich, is considered a language 
of fusion, combining such disparate components as parts of 
German, Slavic, the Holy Tongue (Hebrew and Aramaic), and 
an international vocabulary. We must stress, however, that the 
various components of Yiddish, though ostensibly fused into 
one language, retain evidence of their origin, and may be 
played with, interchanged, and juxtaposed in a stylistic or 
pluricultural game. Yiddish provides a multilingual 
perspective in its very existence. 

English, a language of fusion too, seems to its users as one 
language. Yiddish speakers, however, were always conscious of 
its component languages. Almost by definition, Yiddish 
speakers were, to differing extents, simultaneously speakers 
and readers of several other languages and were well aware of 
the multireligious and multicultural perspectives in which 
they existed. As I have argued elsewhere, Yiddish is also an 
amazingly open language: speakers could enlarge the Hebrew 
part — beyond what is ostensibly "merged" in Yiddish — and 
they could indulge in learned discourse; or enlarge the German 
vocabulary and shift the phonetics in order to speak and read 
German; or they could expand the Slavic elements and shift to 

Chagall's mind moved in the same direction. His fusion of 
heterogeneous components in one painting mirrors the world 
of Yiddish, especially of those Yiddish speakers who rapidly 
assimilated into general culture. He could not learn painting 
without learning the Christian tradition in it, and he merged 
that knowledge with the Jewish knowledge of his childhood. 

Indeed, Chagall's move from a provincial, ignorant Yiddish 
milieu to the centers of Russian and French Modernist art was 
part of the Modern Jewish Revolution, the total secularization 
of masses of Jews and their entrance into general European 
culture." He and his contemporaries entered the history of 
European culture from the outside, just as a radical upheaval 
was transforming that very history. For the curious and eager 
newcomers, history appeared as a synchronic "imaginary 
museum" (to use Andre Malraux's term). Like Chagall in the 
Louvre, one could run from one room to anotiier and choose 
items regardless of their historical context. C^hagall's generation 
began with Modernism, then recapitulated some of the very 
European past that had been subverted by Modernism! In a 

20 Benjamin Harsloav 

speech delivered in Yiddish in New York, Chagall himself 

/ lot'e "contrasts" in which the harmonious truth is hidden. I think 
about one of many examples, in which various poles of art meet 
somewhere. Here is the classical Realist Pushkin with his profoundly 
chiseled meter and the ardent Romantic Baudelaire — veiled in 
dreams of enchanted, poisonous flowers — nevertheless they meet 
somewhere in their ultimate authenticity. I recall the last art 
experiments in Paris where, next to a painting by an old medieval 
primitive such as Giotto, a Picasso may hang, and next to him, the 
pre-Renaissance artist Mantegna; and next to our (i.e. Jewish) 
Modigliani a Byzantine icon can hang; — and several paintings by 
the Naturalist artist and Revolutionary Gustav Courbet. who. during 
the Paris Commune, toppled the Mendome Column to the ground, can 
hang along with the magic Renaissance artist Giorgione. and so 
on . . . And this is not "eclecticism" — on the contrary. ^^' 

Like Introspectivist Yiddish poetry, Chagall's art was 
kaleidoscopic {the Introspectivists' key term). In his paintings, he 
presented a precarious but colortul balance of variegated 
splinters ol a chaotic world. To justify the unity of a painting, 
its subject had to be introspective too, that is, the disjointed 
and heterogeneous elements had to cohabit one personal, 
internalized world, conditioned by the accidents of the artist's 
biography and the flights ot his imagination. Furthermore, in 
Chagall's best paintings, there is an internal equilibrium, a 
balancing of heterogeneous centers of gravity between various strata 
and parts ot the painting. His compositions are not determined 
solely by spatial forms, color, nor the fictional world in itself, 
but by an ambivalent, shifting emphasis from one stratum to 
another. These two principles — introspectivism and the 
balancing ot heterogeneous elements in each painting — are 
among the clelining traits ot Chagall's art. 

Chagall and the semiotics of Jewish discourse 

In addition to the multilingual, multicultural perspective 
inherent in the culture of Yiddish and in the existential 
situation of that generation, Chagall exhibits other basic 
features of what might be called the "semiotics of Jewish 
discourse. " It would take us too far afield to explain this notion 
in detail, but we may mention a few conspicuous aspects. 

The founding book of Jewish consciousness is the Bible. 
The Bible is an "encyclopedic" book (as Northrop Fry wrote), 
encompassing all available genres: poetry, stories, prophecy, 
wisdom, law, and historiography. Those genres are embedded 
in a narrative, stretching, in the Jewish Bible, from the 
creation of the world to the list of generations in Chronicles. 
After the Biblical narrative ends, history is finished. The 
Biblical text has been reinterpreted into a panhistoric and 
pangeographic system of rules and beliefs. A major precept of 
interpretation has been, "There is no 'earlier' and no 'later' in 
the Bible " — any quote may be used for any purpose at hand. 
While Christians have interpreted Biblical events as 
prefigurations of the life of Jesus, Jewish learning uses Biblical 
texts as an inexhaustible source of law and language. 

Accordingly, typical Jewish texts (in the Talmudic tradition 
as well as in popular writings and sermons) do not have one 
unfolding logical structure or one, directionally continuous 
narrative. Directionality, which gives a certain logical or 
narrative discipline to the unfolding of a text in the 'Western 
tradition, subordinates each detail or event to the continuous 
chain, making it functional either tor the plot or for the 
argument. In Jewish Diaspora texts, however, directionality is 
set aside and each detailed observation is treated as an 
autonomous value. Every detail is taken out of its narrative 
chain and observed close up; it does not lose the reader's 

interest, for it belongs to one total universe, which endows 
each detail with rich meaning and depth. Hence, any detail 
could be parallel to anything else, any textual reference could 
evoke any other text in the library, supporting it or serving as 
an opposite. To be sure, there are Jewish folklore stories, but 
popular narrative texts tend to be short, moralistic, or 
anecdotal. Especially associative were the structures of the oral 
performances by rabbis and popular preachers (such as the 
Magid of Slutsk in Chagall's Green Jew [1914I), for they had to 
depart from the given, fixed weekly portion of the Bible to 
whatever topics of the day or of morality interested them. 

In the traditional Jewish milieu, talk and argument were 
important and privileged, for it was not enough just to know 
the law, one had to explain it, using all arguments on each side 
of every issue and disproving the "wrong" ones. This mode of 
religious and educational discourse, studied and practiced by 
every male in the family, permeated social communication 
and family life. A cluster of attitudes, developed in the 
universe of religious texts and the methods of teaching, was 
folklorized, and became second nature to typical Jewish verbal 
behavior, especially in Eastern Europe, where there was a dense 
educational network and a codified linguistic tool — 
Yiddish — to absorb it all and give it the sanction of 
privileged communicative behavior. Various aspects of it were 
then transferred to other languages by such assimilated Jews as 
Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Saul Bellow, or Chagall. This 
semiotics of Jewish discourse can be described as a cluster of 
tendencies, common — though neither obligatory nor 
exclusive — to Jewish verbal behavior in that period. 

Such "Jewish discourse " is talkative, argumentative, 
contrary, associative. Its typical traits include answering with 
examples, anecdotes, parables, or questions, rather than with 
direct, logical replies; seeing the smallest detail as symbolic for 
universal issues; delving into the meanings, connotations, and 
associations of a single word; and leaping from a word or 
concrete item to abstract generalizations and theories. In 
general, it was not the logical continuity of the text but the 
coherence of the represented universe that guided the 
discourse. It all made sense when it was subordinated to one 
total, religious universe; when that universe was no longer 
based on the religious system, substitute totalities were sought. 
In Freud's and Chagall's perception, that totality was one 
person's consciousness. Thus, in Freud, every word or detail or 
connotation could be symbolic for the whole personality, and 
could evoke any other detail in the individual's universe of 
discourse; as Peter Gay put it, Freud's goal was "to draw the 
map of human experience as crisscrossed by the roads of 

Specific characteristics of that Jewish discourse were 
influenced by an intersection of communicational habits from 
both the learned tradition and the existential situation of the 
Jews. For example, the inferiority-superiority complex of 
Kafka's protagonists, and of Chagall's self-understanding, came 
from the religious notion that the Jews are the "chosen people" 
on the one hand, combined with their actual existential 
condition (of a "fallen aristocracy of the mind, " chosen for 
suffering as well) on the other. The penchant for abstraction 
and generalization, in which a detail is unimportant in itself 
unless it can be seen as representing the "rules of the game," 
has been derived from both the learned tradition and from the 
lack of contact with nature. Even when such individuals joined 
European cultures, they embraced first the abstract, learned 
language ot literature and philosophy, rather than the specific, 
dialectal language of real people. 

Chagall's work embodies many features of this typical 
cluster ot Jewish discourse. His paintings are filled with many 
colorful, concrete details, animals, or flowers, but those are 

Observations on Chagall's Art 21 

mostly abstractions, taken out of their realistic context; they 
are selected, emblematic representatives of his fictional 
domains, and, beyond them, of a global perception of "nature," 
"love," or "light." No continuity of space, time, and causality is 
required. His compositions and remembered asides are guided 
by private associations. Yet the details themselves are given 
intensive attention, as endowed with symbolic value; indeed, 
they are perceived as belonging to one total universe — which 
is now, however, a fictional and personal one (as in Freud's 
patients). His paintings are talkative — they have a lot to say 
and try to say it all. There is no better example for Chagall's 
folksy use of "Jewish discourse" than his associative, 
metaphorical, whimsical autobiography — and the tour de 
force of this style, the Introduction to the Yiddish Theater 
(cat. no. i). 

Chagall directly evoked several social and cultural domains 
of interest to his contemporaries. But he did it by creating a 
personalized fictional world, recollected through introspection. 
Indeed — paradoxical as it may seem — individualism was a 
prominent feature of Jewish behavior. In spite of the stringent 
religious rules and conventions imposed on daily behavior in 
the small town, and the strong, folklorized stereotypes of an 
ahistorical and collective world-view of the community, 
personal effort was the mainspring of Jewish life. The two most 
prestigious activities in Jewish society were learning and trade; 
a Yiddish proverb conjoins them in a rhyme, toyre iz di beste 
skhoyre (learning is the best merchandise). For success in either 
of them, individual effort is required. Indeed, Jews did not 
work in factories or fields, and even Jewish tailors, shoemakers, 
peddlers, and other artisans (a third of the Jewish population in 
Vitebsk at Chagall's time) had very few helpers. With the 
Modern Jewish Revolution, this prevalent tendency toward 
individualism was enhanced even further as each person broke 
the strong chains of a conventional and religious community: 
hence the high value assigned in this period to autobiography 
and to poetry, genres focusing on individual consciousness. 
Introspection gave the individual the truth of his internal 
world and internal strength. A Jewish-German writer argued 
that every poet is a Jew, whether he was born one or not, 
because Jews are the ultimate individualists in the atomistic 
big city.'^ 

Chagall's capricious and willful compositions and behavior 
were part of that individualism. He threw a temper tantrum 
when the Yiddish Theater's director Aleksei Granovskii put a 
real towel on his painted stage, and he broke the chairs in the 
Hadassah synagogue in Jerusalem when he discovered that his 
magnificent Biblical windows were buried in a tiny edifice. 
Nevertheless, his fame and general reception were due in part 
to his appeal to the most common stereotypes of Jewish and 
non-Jewish life. 

Thinking About Picasso 

Before moving on to Chagall's murals, let us discuss some basic 
principles of his art as they apply to two examples. Chagall was 
quick to learn the languages of Modernist art, and agile in 
distancing himself from them. This gesture of independence is 
common in Chagall's typical style, which I call demonstrative 
eclecticism. This demonstrative eclecticism can be seen in a 
black-ink drawing of 1914, probably made upon Chagall's 
return to Russia, which is known by the misleading title 
Thinking About Picasso (fig. 6). In it, a house is drawn with 
simple geometric shapes, resulting in a two-dimensional, flat 
presentation; its schematic doors and windows look like letters 
of some elementary language. Traversing its roof are two 
stripes with simplified shaded and white areas; one stripe 
bleeds from the triangle roof to the square house — a gesture 
indicating the autonomy of spatial forms. In the upper-left 

corner of the drawing is an inverted four-square structure 
echoing the house's geometry — perhaps it is an abstraction of 
the house, or of a folded paper representing a house, or a 
hieroglyph of a home with triple "roofs" pointing downward 
and to the sides, uncertain of the direction of gravity. 

The central house itself floats diagonally; divorced from any 
street or ground (though embellished with a decorative brick- 
like foundation) it seems to defy gravity. Placed as it is in the 
center of the drawing, the house forms a diamond, capriciously 
challenging the rectangular paper on which it is drawn. In 
Chagall's abbreviated alphabet, the house signals his own 
provincial home, or his return to it in an unreal world and with 
a topsy-turvy echo above it. Both the house and its abstraction 
have spiral-like doodles, perhaps indicating smoke, music, or 
even a snail's enclosure in his own world. A lavish tail and 
snout are attached to the house, transforming it into the 
metaphor of a fox. (Chagall seems to say that, returning to his 
own home base, however unreally floating in the air, he 
"outfoxed" Picasso.) 

Text, written in a childish hand and in schematized, 
simplified letters, floats like smoke above the roof The letters 
(which are printed, as in a caption) declare in Russian, Shagal 
nadoel nine dumaia {0} pikaso (I am sick of Chagall thinking 
[about] Picasso.) The "about" ("o" in Russian) is missing, 
unless we find it in the spiral protruding from the chimney; 
thus the text could also read, "thinking Picasso." The "o," 
however, does appear in the shortened version of the text below. 
Here it reads, Dumaia Pik (Thinking about Pic); in a Picasso- 
like pun, Chagall uses the first syllable of that artist's name, 
"pik," which in Russian means "peak," in this case the summit 
of art. The placement of this inscription, however, suggests 
as a subtext a popular though vulgar Yiddish idiom, ikh hob 
ini in tokhes (I have him in my ass, i.e., I don't give a damn 
about him). 

In the upper-right corner is a cloud, derived from Symbolist 
painting, from which a long arm stretches down (an allusion to 
Michelangelo?) to touch (with the famous tip of a finger) the 
inverted foot of the topsy-turvy Chagall. The soft, rounded 
Symbolist area in the upper right is set in opposition to the 
Cubist forms in the center. The representation of Chagall 
utilizes a third stylistic language and is clearly a gesture 
against Cubism. Essentially, it is a simplified drawing of a 
human figure with a recognizable face; rudimentary shading 
indicates a three-dimensional body with rounded limbs. It is 
not broken down into shards of semigeometric areas, as in an 
Analytic Cubist portrait. It seems to represent the young 
Chagall (twenty-seven years old at the time), lying leisurely in 
the grass, and suddenly waking up with a start to think how 
not to think about Picasso. But, at the same time, it exhibits a 
drastic antirealistic gesture — the naturalistic human figure is 
bent ninety degrees in an entirely unnatural way. It could be 
read, "I don't give a damn about reality if I have to fill out a 
corner of my drawing.""' The clownishly inverted left foot and 
the free-floating house placed in his inverted lap indicate the 
willful arrangement of a fictional world and invite the 
spectator to interpret it and provide a context and a narrative. 
If Picasso's paintings send us to rethink art, Chagall's send us 
to rethink reality and, simultaneously, to read the prototypical 
biography of the painter, especially here, where he is both the 
maker of the drawing and its protagonist, the focus of its 
internal point of view, which organizes the drawing while 
looking away from it. 

This drastic break in the naturalistic depiction of a human 
figure (it cannot be predicted when moving along the "normal" 
body) can be described by the metaphor of the "catastrophe 
theory""' It is cognate to Kafka's drastic breaks of realistic 
credibility in the midst of an otherwise pedantic, realistic 

22 Benjamin Harshav 

fig. 6 

Thinking About Picasso, 1914. 

Black ink on paper, ip.i x 21.6 cm (y '/-• x 8 '/.« inches). 

Musee national d'art moderne. Centre Georges Pompidou. Paris. 

Observations on Chagall's Art 23 

description. In "Blumfield, an Elderly Bachelor," for example, 
two little balls pop up suddenly in a bachelor's apartment and 
keep bouncing up and down. In "The Judgment," Georg 
Bendemann commits suicide for no reason that is detectable in 
what preceded it. And the first chapter of The Trial opens with 
the strange, implausible event of K.'s non-arrest arrest; then, 
taking that catastrophe for granted, there is a step-by-step 
description in almost tedious detail of an arrest (that may be a 
"mistake" or a "joke") until, suddenly, K. says, "This is not 
capital punishment yet" — and a whole new dimension of 
reality is introduced. Such sudden "catastrophes" — and 
their smaller forerunners, strange (in Kafka) or teasing 
(in Chagall) — stir us to question the realism ot the work of 
art as a whole, or the different order of meaning we are invited 
to give the text. 

One difference between fiction and painting, however, is 
that fiction is linear — we get to the catastrophe only when we 
get to it (for that reason, Kaflva often announces the basic 
catastrophe in the first sentence), while in painting the 
catastrophe may appear in the midst of a figure, though our eye 
finds it immediately, even before we figure out the naturalistic 
parts of the figure. It is a perfect example of the central literary 
device that the Russian Formalists called ostratineiiie (making 
strange), which calls the reader's attention to the text as an 
artificial object made by its iiuthor rather than an illusion of a 
"world." (Brecht borrowed the concept for his key term 
verfremdung [alienation], denoting the breaking down of the 
realistic illusion in theater.) Sometimes, Chagall did not need 
much — one major "catastrophe" — to call our attention to 
the strangeness of the painting, as in the reverse bending of the 
body here. 

In the case of Thinking About Picasso, the basic 
catastrophe — the defiance of normal human anatomy — is 
joined by secondary catastrophes and willful deformations such 
as the house that defies gravity and runs off as a fox, and the 
topsy-turvy abstraction of the house in the upper-left corner, 
looking down on it all in an inverted perspective. Such willful 
catastrophes, drastic breaks in a normal, realistic flow, appear 
in many forms and were Chagall's trademark from the 
beginning. Indeed, Chagall was a lyrical joker, an optimist 
of an absurdist world perception, a comedian Kafka. Their 
affinity is especially obvious in the "realization of 
metaphors " — a technique that is not metaphoric at all, but, 
on the contrary, takes every metaphor literally and depicts it as 
a fact in the fictional world, making that world itself absurd. 
Such is the huge insect that Gregor Samsa actually turns into 
in Kafka's "Metamorphosis"; or, in Over Vitebsk (1915-20), 
Chagall's depiction of a Jew with a sack who actually "goes 
over the houses" (a Yiddish idiom meaning "is a beggar"). 

The basic units of this drawing are modules selected from 
Chagall's fictionalized world, arranged to fill, in asymmetrical 
balance, the entire sheet of paper. No continuity or direction of 
time, space, and causality are given a chance here. The 
composition places a three-dimensional figure (the person) 
along with a two-dimensional object (the image of the house) 
in a demonstratively two-dimensional space. No single 
principle is responsible for the overall order of the painting; a 
focus of attention at one end is not echoed but compensated for 
by a different focus of attention on the other end. This new 
kind of composition, oi asymmetrical balancing of opposite centers of 
gravity, is a concomitant of the heterogeneity of styles and 
fictional domains in Chagall's painting; in the same painting, 
no continuity is either necessary in his represented world or in 
his style, for where one fails, the other takes over. Thus, 
Chagall foregoes both the options of an "inherent" organization 
of the represented world and of Cubist, Renaissance, or any 
other formal symmetries; instead he juggles elements of both 

to fill his pictorial space. 

The modular elements assembled in Thinking About Picasso 
and in more complex paintings enter various negotiations of 
metaphoricity, analogy, inclusion, counterpoint, and 
composition. "We can explain how they operate together in one 
object of art. But why the specific selection of those modules 
rather than others? This question can be answered only in a 
Yiddish manner, with the question, ""Why not?" Or, better, 
with a Yiddish riddle: "What is green, hangs on the wall, and 
whistles? — A herring. Why hangs on the wall? — I hung it 
there. Why green? — It's my herring, I can paint it as I want. 
And why whistle? — So you have something to ask." Chagall 
knew a lot about herrings (his father carried barrels of them 
every day), and he painted them as he felt (especially green). In 
some sense, this colloquial anecdote describes the composition 
of a Chagall painting, even the murals for the Yiddish Theater. 
But in a deeper sense, the justification of this hodgepodge 
assembly derives from the fact that all accidental and 
discontinuous individuals cohabiting one canvas are linked to a 
unified Chagallian universe, permeating his whole oeuvre, in 
which each of them makes sense. 

Color and spatial form 

Color complicates the issue immensely — and Chagall placed a 
great emphasis on it. As many critics have pointed out, the 
liberation of color from the boundaries of depicted objects is a 
basic trait of Modernist painting. Artists as diverse as "Vincent 
van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Kandinskii recognized color as 
an independent expressive force, having spiritual or musical 
qualities that affect the viewer in an unmediated way. 
Kandinskii wrote in Munich in 1912, "Generally speaking, 
color directly influences the soul. Color is the key-board, the 
eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. 
The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another 
purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul."'° 

Kandinskii was influenced by Wilhelm Worringer, a 
professor of aesthetics in Munich who, in his book Abstraktion 
inid Einfiihliing {Abstraction and Empathy, 1908) promoted the 
theory that abstract art is one of the two alternating options in 
art history: abstraction, which generates unlimited geometric 
patterns, and empathy, which results in closed paintings 
depicting transient human and natural figures. Chagall was not 
necessarily familiar with Worringer's writings, but his theories 
were present in the intellectual and artistic air of the period. In 
his paintings, Chagall combined both poles — abstraction and 
empathy — and this attitude also influenced his treatment of 
color. For Chagall, color had both an abstract function, 
influencing the spectator directly, and an expressive function, 
interacting with the presented world. Indeed, he often 
emphasized both aspects in the same painting, with some color 
areas subordinated to the outlines of figures and spatial forms, 
and others independent and dominant in parts of the painting. 
This is a juggling act in which each painting exhibits an 
asymmetrical equilibrium of painterly and representational 
forces. He treated all other strata that operate in his works in a 
similarly dual manner. 

Generally speaking, we may distinguish five major strata 
that interact in most paintings: individuals (human and animal 
figures and objects); social functionality of the individuals; 
continuity of a presented world; spatial form; and color. The 
first three are aspects of the presented world, while the last two 

fig- 7 

I and the "Village, 1911. 

Oil on canvas, 192. 1 x 1^1.4 cm (y$ Vs x ^9 '!» inches). 

Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. 

24 Benjamin Harshav 

Observations on Chagall's An 25 

are aspects of the organized canvas. In different periods of his 
life, Chagall autonomized and deformed one or several of these 
strata, while simultaneously evoking their presence. Thus, 
perspective was suggested and then subverted; human Hgures 
were deformed, yet offered to our attention; the continuities of 
a presented world were disrupted, yet indicated, emphasizing 
the disruption. 

In traditional, realistic painting (admittedly, a 
generalization lumping together a great variety of things) all 
five strata basically overlap (or make believe they do). Even so, 
both spatial form and color may create autonomous patterns, 
such as symmetry or perspective in a Renaissance painting, or 
patterns of a color dispersed in various parts of the canvas, or 
quasi-abstract shaping of colors on a drapery. And yet, the 
appearance and boundaries of each color and spatial pattern are, 
on the whole, "motivated" (to use a Russian Formalist term) 
realistically; they are justified by the nature of the depicted 
objects. This coordination between strata became shaky in the 
age of Modernism. In various trends of Modernism, one 
stratum or another was subverted; for example. Marcel 
Duchamp's objets trouves defy the social functionality of real 
(nonart) objects. In abstract painting, there may be no 
presented individuals at all, and the first three strata are 

Paul Cezanne promoted semigeometric forms in space; their 
very principle seems to be in opposition to the flowing, 
curvilinear forms of living nature. But nonetheless he 
motivated those semigeometric bodies by objects found in his 
depicted nature (e.g., buildings among trees) as well as — and 
here is a leap — by the nature of his metalanguage, the brush 
strokes executed on a canvas. The next generation did not 
worry about natural motivation, but broke up a tree or a face 
into separate color areas, or (in Cubism) broke up the human 
figure into semigeometric independent units, with their 
autonomous shadings of lighter and darker hues. Chagall did 
both: he played between realism and nonrealism in all five 
strata, and shifted his emphasis mid-painting from one stratum 
to the other. Let us look at an example. 

/ and the Village 

The famous painting / and the Village, in the collection of the 
Museum of Modern Art, New York (fig. 7), was produced in 
Paris in 1911-12 from a distance of memory. (A later, gouache 
and watercolor version is in the collection of the Guggenheim 
Museum; cat. no. 31.) That distance is underscored by the 
unrealistic, impossible proportions and continuities between 
the modules of presented "reality"; if it had been intended as a 
depiction of reality, it would be either absurd or incompetent 
or both. Only the simultaneous existence of the figures and 
scenes in memory can justify such disproportions and 
incongruous continuities. It is as if the artist were saying, 
"Those are the things I remember simultaneously, and I shall 
put them wherever I find space on the canvas." 

Most of the canvas is occupied by the heads of a young man 
and of an animal (presumably a calf), looking into each other's 
eyes, as is underscored didactically by the thin line linking 
them. From the title / and the Vdlage (given by Cendrars), the 
viewer may assume that the green head is Chagall's and the 
village is represented through its livestock. (In Yiddish folk 
semantics, "village " indicated the world of the "goyim," the 
Christian peasants; see Chapter 4, "Chagall's Cultural 
Context.") The green man, however, wears a cross — which 
may be explained in this interpretation as Chagall trying to 
identify himself with the Christian village. Partial overlapping 
of two individuals or two opposing categories is frecjuent in 
Chagall's work; parallel to the portmanteau words of Modernist 
literature, they may be cA\it<\ portmanteau jigiires. In his 

paintings, we often encounter portmanteau figures in 
combinations such as human/animal, man/woman, child/old 
person, animate/inanimate, and, as here, Jew/Christian. 

If, however, one assumes that the green man is not Chagall, 
but the representation of an authentic man of the village, 
Chagall may still be discovered peeping out of the black, 
gaping space of the Church and observing it all. (Adherents of 
the former interpretation have suggested that the small figure 
is a priest, but his face could easily be Chagall's.) Of course, in 
Chagall's world they may both represent Chagall. In any case, 
two internal, "na'ive" points of view are established, through 
which the other parts of the village world are perceived: the 
point of view of the green man in the foreground, his gaze 
fixed on the animal head with the rest of the scene perhaps in 
the back of his mind; and the point of view of the smaller man 
looking out of the village church onto the free scene of 
emotions. Simultaneously, however, an external point of view is 
present, that of the painter-poet, who does not hide behind his 
work of art but manipulates the strata of the painting at will, 
for any spectator to see. 

Though the painting emphasizes a "world, " there are 
several conspicuous geometric forms independent of the figures 
of that world, claiming for themselves a competing, quasi- 
geometric principle of organization. Most conspicuous is the 
imprecise circle in the center, which cuts through and unifies 
the man and the animal. This circle is echoed by a smaller 
circle with inverted red and white colors, intersecting the 
major one, but not related to any presented figures. 
Furthermore, the geometric principle is repeated in several 
semicircular lines, drawn in a nonconcentric manner. That 
includes two intersecting ovoids through the calf's head, as 
well as several continuations of one oval in almost-straight 
lines. Some of the outlines of the objects and figures are also 
involved in the geometric network; like verbal ambiguities in 
poetry, they participate in both systems. Crisscrossing diagonal 
lines divide the great circle like spokes of a wheel, touch the 
outlines of the two faces, and create five sections with different 
functions in the fictional world of the picture. The upper 
wedge forgoes geometry to create a horizon, or the upper limits 
of a globe, where the peasant pair and the village houses are 
placed (almost realistically — but for the woman and two 
houses standing on their heads). 

Thus, spatial figures may act as independent geometric 
bodies or they may be motivated by realistic objects and 
dependent on their shape. Competition exists between the two 
principles of composition as does mutual reinforcement. The 
overall semigeometric organization of space compensates for 
any discontinuity in the fictional space of the presented village; 
where one fails, the other takes over. As is often the case in his 
work, Chagall doesn't know what to do with distance in a 
depicted landscape: he paints a rising, almost vertical ground, 
feels uncomfortable with its awkward perspective, and fills it 
in with figures, whether contiguous with the surrounding 
reality or not. 

The same holds for color. Colors, many and bright, are 
delineated with clear-cut boundaries, but within each division 
they are alive, constantly shifting, interacting. Color deviates 
from the natural function of an object's surface in two major 
ways; an "unnatural," unexpected color covers the surface of an 
individual; or colors create spatial areas in their own right, as a 
different kind of reality, shifting the emphasis from the 
presented world to the surface of the painting itself An 
example of the former in / and the Vdlage is the green face; the 
color is precisely delineated by the form of the face (though the 
boundaries of the face itself are guided in part by the spatial 
forms), but its incongruity makes a statement so strong we 
don't feel that most of the head is cut out of the picture. 

26 Benjamin Harshav 

Indeed, ic is the relation between the human head and the 
animal head that counts here, rather than the presentation of a 
whole human or animal figure. The same green reappears as an 
independent agent throughout the painting, one of several 
unifying motifs. The peasant houses are also painted in strong, 
jolly colors — in a country where buildings and garb are 
usually gray, and where Maiakovskii caused a scandal of sorts 
by wearing a yellow sweater in the capital! The white in the 
upper slice would, in another painting, suggest snow, but the 
man with the scythe and the bouquet below suggest harvest 
time, and thus turn the white into an unnatural color as well, 
indicating vacuous space rather than physical ground. 

The same double-directed relationship we observe between 
geometric forms and the fictional world holds true of the 
relationship between color and spatial forms: in part, colors are 
confined within the limits of the semigeometric figures, and, 
in part, they glide outside the spatial form. Red, subordinated 
to the geometric form in the circles, spills over their 
boundaries and becomes a dominant, sweeping space of its own 
on the lower left, which is echoed throughout the picture. The 
strong confrontation of the two opposing colors, green and red, 
creates the central organizing power in the color composition 
of the painting, tied together by the circular form. It is this 
alliance that foregrounds the blue and the black of the sky in 
the background. But the colors, too, do not organize the space 
as a whole and retreat in the upper part, giving way to the 
dominance of the fictional world: the peasant pair and the line 
(rather than street) of houses strung in a row. Thus three 
competing principles of composition, based on three strata — 
presented world, spatial form, and color — intersect, 
reinforcing and complementing one another. 

The disproportion in the sizes of the objects is not entirely 
antiperspectival. The two friends in love, young man and 
animal, are shown close up and large, while the smaller village 
is indicated in the background. But there is no transition in 
represented space between them (in the form of streets, roads, 
or fields) — just a rising white, globelike surface. A possibility 
of perspective is suggested and then defied and discontinued. 
The same is true for the head, disproportionately occupying the 
bulk of the church. The contours of the two frontal figures and 
some of the houses look almost like flat paper cutouts (though 
there is some roundness in the middle of the bodies). On the 
other hand, the peasants, the milking scene, the fingers, and 
the fruit are three-dimensional. What we have is not an overall 
perspective but multiple planes placed one behind the other. 
Yet the order of the planes is sometimes confused. Thus, the 
visor of the young man's hat is both part of the front plane and 
a foundation of the house in the distance. And the small 
milking scene is placed in the large animal head, reversing 
perspective and forcing a nonrealistic reading. 

The shifting dominance of the major strata — color, 
geometric form, and human and social space — is echoed in 
the shifting functions at work in the picture. The animal head 
seems to be a calf (with a cow indicated in its head); 
functionally, in this painting, the calf is a beloved to whom the 
young man stretches a bunch of grapes or a bouquet of flowers; 
and the man himself wears the hat of a school uniform and a 
cross, identifying himself (if he is Chagall) with the "goyish" 
village and its love of animals. Even human love, indicated in 
the inverted man-woman pair, is the simple, healthy love of a 
working peasant and a sensuous village woman, who invites 
him home with a generous gesture of her hands. We can say, 
with Roman Jakobson, that here "every metonymy is a 
metaphor," every two items placed side by side may evoke a 
metaphoric construct by the reader. Thus, the boy's loving look 
and offer of a bouquet to the calf transforms the animal into a 
metaphor of his beloved. This is underscored by several 

additional metonymies: the parallelism between this couple 
and the peasant couple in the background; the motherly 
function of the cow in the embedded milking scene; the strings 
of beads on the necks of the boy and the calf; the similarity of 
the milking woman to the woman in the peasant couple; and 
the line (conspicuous when the picture is inverted, as Chagall 
did when he painted it) that leads from the scythe, through the 
woman's gesture, to the young man's eye. 

The principles described above are, of course, not 
ubiquitous in all of Chagall's work. Rather, I have sought to 
describe a set of basic options that grew, developed, and 
changed with time, and from which Chagall selected various 
aspects and possibilities in the course of his life. A full account 
of Chagall's art would need a careful historical description. 

Observations on Chagall's Art I 27 

\^ \ 

'-1% ' 





28 Benjamin Harshav 

Chapter 2: Chagall's Murals 

A total painting environment 

The murals Chagall made for the State Yiddish Chamber 
Theater in Moscow were a landmark for both the painter and 
the theater. The theater was transformed from a small actors' 
studio producing traditional plays in a generally 
Stanislavskiian manner to one embracing Chagall's avant-garde 
conception of Modern art, combined with his vision of Sholem 
Aleichem and the totality and vitality of topsy-turvy Jewish 
existence. In a few years it became one of the most celebrated 
theaters in Europe. Chagall himself did not recover from the 
exhilarating experience of having created a huge object of 
public art — he kept repeating, "Give me a wall!" — until he 
made his great stained-glass windows, tapestries, and ceilings 
in churches, synagogues, and opera houses after World War II. 

Founded in 1919 in Petrograd, the Yiddish Chamber 
Theater moved to Moscow in the end of 1920, where its second 
birth occurred. Abram Efros, the art critic who co-authored the 
first book about Chagall," was appointed artistic director of the 
theater; he persuaded the director, Aleksei Granovskii, to 
commission Chagall to design the stage sets for the first 
production in Moscow. Chagall had just been defeated by the 
radical abstractionists Malevich and Lissitzky in his own 
People's Art School in Vitebsk, and a commission from 
Moscow was welcome, even though it was for a separate Jewish 
(rather than general) institution. The opening production was 
to be the Sholem Aleichem Evening, with two one-act plays by 
that Yiddish writer — Agents: A Joke in One Act and Mazel Tov: 
A Comedy in One Act — as well as his It's a Lie, a prose dialogue. 
Because these were light pieces — almost caricatures — 
Granovskii could fill in the texts with a theatrical conception 
of the gesamtkiinstwerk he had brought from Germany and 
perfected into a meticulously choreographed multimedia event. 
Simultaneously, Chagall used the opportunity to impose on the 
theater his vision of a grotesque, tragicomic Jewish world, 
disappearing yet brimming with vitality. 

In the cold winter of 1920, as civil war raged in the Soviet 
Union and as the center of power moved from Petrograd to 
Moscow, rehearsals went on and Chagall painted in a fury. The 
Yiddish Theater was located on Bol'shoi Chernyshevskii Lane 
in central Moscow, in the nationalized house of a Jewish 
businessman, L. I. Gurevich. Gurevich, who apparently fled 
after the Revolution, had built the three-story mansion in 1902 
and lived with his family on the second floor. (Stars of David 
still embellished the tiles of the corridors when the troupe 
moved in; fig. 17.) The second floor, including the large 
reception room and some adjacent spaces, was turned into a 
theater that held ninety seats. The actors were given living 
quarters in the same building. 

Aleksandr Tairov, the director of the Russian Chamber 
Theater, had promoted a new perception of the artist's 
function: rather than painting the backdrop decoration alone, 
the artist constructed the whole, three-dimensional stage. But 
Chagall went beyond even this radical notion, embracing the 
entire auditorium in a Chagallian painting ensemble. Within 
forty days," working singlehandedly, he painted a twenty-six- 
foot-long canvas. Introduction to the Yiddish Theater (cat. no. i); 
four tall images of the Arts (which contributed to the new 
theater according to Granovskii's conception): Music, Dance, 
Drama, and Literature (cat. nos. 4-7); a long frieze. The Wedding 
Table (cat. no. 3); and an almost translucent square image. Love 
on the Stage (cat. no. 2). In sum, the murals covered all the 

fig. 8 

Dc/^?/'/ r;/ Introduction to the Yiddish Theater (cat. no. i). 

walls, and, according to some sources, the ceiling was painted 
as well. Thus, instead of seeing a painting in a theater, the 
audience experienced a performance within a Chagallian four- 
wall space. It was soon nicknamed "Chagall's box." A critic 
described the impression: 

The task that confronted the artist — to paint the auditorium of the 
theater — challenged him to a dialogue between the auditorium and 
the stage. The auditorium, presumably embodying life itself, life 
standing against the stage, speaks in Chagall's Introduction to the 
Yiddish Theater about the ever-theatrical nature of mundane life 
itself about life itself being drunk on the elixir of theatricality, about 
Chagall's paintings connecting the ties between the Harlequinade of 
the stage and the Harlequinade of mundane life. " 

Chagall hated any naturalistic disturbance and pitched a 
temper tantrum when Granovskii, in the Stanislavskiian 
tradition, hung a real towel on the stage. Chagall even painted 
the rags that were bought to make costumes, and covered the 
actors' bodies and faces with colorful dots. As Efros tells it: 

He obviously considered the spectator a fly, which would soar out of its 
chair, sit on Mikhoels's hat and observe with the thousand titty 
crystals of its fly's eye what he, Chagall, had conjured up there. . . . 
On the day of the premiere, just before Mikhoels's entrance on the stage, 
he clutched the actor's shoulder and frenziedly thrust his brush at him 
as at a mannequin, daubing dots on his costume and painting tiny 
birds and pigs no opera glass could observe on his visored cap, despite 
repeated, anxious summonses to the stage. " 

The actors were thus perceived as moving Chagallian 
figures. This coincided with Granovskii's theory that, since the 
normal human state is silence, actors should pop up out of 
silence and go back to it. Efros wrote of the production, "The 
best places were those in which Granovskii executed his system 
of 'dots' and the actors froze in mid-movement and gesture, 
from one moment to the next. The narrative line was turned 
into an assembly of dots."" But this was contrary to the usual 
conception of theater as a three-dimensional, dynamic art. 
Efros shrewdly understood the problem: 

The wholeness of the spectator's impression was complete. When the 
curtain rose, Chagall's wall panels and the decorations with the actors 
on the stage simply mirrored each other. But the nature of this ensemble 
was so untheatrical that one might have asked, why turn off the light 
in the auditorium, and why do these Chagallian beings move and 
speak on the stage rather than stand unmoving and silent as on his 
canvases. '" 

The stage and the walls mirrored each other because 
Chagall used images of the actors for his painted carnival. 
Chagall wouldn't abide by the traditional three-dimensionality 
of the theater any more than he would limit himself to two 
dimensions in painting: within a demonstratively two- 
dimensional surface he rendered figures as both two- and three- 
dimensional. And, as we see in his murals, two-dimensionality 
itself is often presented in a multiplanar perspective. If some 
figures seem to move in and out of his painted world, it is a 
fulfillment of his larger conception: his own wife and child 
peep out from between two flat color stripes in the Introduction, 
and the major figures of the painted theater leap above 
geometric space altogether. The actors, to Chagall, merely 
provided another degree of animation in a two-and-a-half- 
dimensional space. Nevertheless, Efros concluded, "[Chagall] 
never understood that he was the clear and undisputable victor, 
and that, in the end, the young Yiddish theater had struggled 
because of this victory."'^ 

Chagall's Murals I 29 

fig- 9 

Detail 0/ Introduction to the Yiddish Theater (cat. no. i). 

Introduction to the Yiddish Theater: 
The multiplanar canvas: 

Let us first walk into the auditorium as it was and then return 
to the history and nature of that tragic Yiddish Theater. 

As we enter the theater and look at the huge mural to our 
left, Introduction to the Yiddish Theater, a powerful, sweeping 
movement carries us forward; yet the movement is constantly 
impeded by groups of figures, bizarre activities, and ever- 
changing painterly events, making it a long journey indeed. In 
most of his paintings, Chagall's figures hover over the depicted 
scenery, but here there is no such setting at all, no houses, 
streets, town, or stage. The authority of space is transferred 
from the fictional world to another stratum, the geometric 
areas formed by Suprematist-like stripes and Orphic-like 
circles. Colorful figures float on this spaceless canvas, brought 
together in three functional groups: the management of the 
theater, the musicians, and the comedians. The painting is 
framed on each side by a cow and a human figure in a red shirt, 
and many smaller groups, individuals, and vignettes appear 
throughout the painting. Within each human grouping, there 
is no realistic space but rather a conceptual conjunction that 
unites them. We cannot imagine, for example, an act //a I scene 
in which Chagall, touching Granovskii with his palette, is 
carried in Efros's arms while a midget serves tea to the trio. It 
is rather a realization of the dead metaphor, "Efros brought 
Chagall to Granovskii." 

Basically, the composition is organized in three circles with 
margins on either end. The circles increase in diameter from 
left to right, and their upper arcs rise from a distance of about 
one quarter below the top of the canvas to the very top. In 
addition to the circles, there are conspicuous stripes and 
triangles, with well-defined boundaries, as well as lines, 
segments, and radii, all of which overlap the circles. From the 
Suprematists, Chagall learned the value of abstract geometric 
figures, defined in sharp outlines as if made by a ruler, and 
usually monochromatic. The geometric forms he used in the 
Introduction enabled him to hold such a long work of art 
together. For years afterward, he was proud and jealous of this 
achievement. He attempted another massive composition in 
the long "political" quasi-mural The Revohition (1937); yet he 
had to cut it into several parts, for he could not handle the 
unity of a painting larger than the length of his arms — until 
the grills of his stained-glass windows, which he designed later 
in life, resolved the problem. 

The use of Suprematist elements in the midst of this lively 
work is, of course, a profanation. Malevich sought to achieve 
"a 'desert' in which nothing could be perceived but feeling," 
the rediscovery of pure art not "obscured by the accumulation 
of 'things.'"'" And along comes Chagall, using a complex 
structure of geometric figures as a ground ioT his human figures 
to walk on! 

One of the first things that strikes us is the strong black 
diagonal stripe at the center of the canvas. We recognize this 
gesture in other post-Revolutionary paintings by Chagall as 
the realization of his name in Russian, which means "he 
strode." (Maiakovskii came up with a rhyme: Shagal I Shagal, 
"He strode / Chagall.") To the left of this black diagonal, and 
parallel to it, is Efros's footless black leg. In the right half of 
the painting we have a parallel move: the faint, pastel stripes, 
although oriented downward, are stacked so that as a band of 
colors they also move upward in the same diagonal. Indeed, if 
we look at all the precisely organized diagonal stripes and lines, 
we see that a huge flattened "W" underlies the composition, 
uniting the canvas — circles, people, and all. The movement 
upward and forward is further reinforced by the band of human 
figures that occupies precisely half of the height of the mural 
and moves slowly from its lower to its upper half. This colorful 

30 Benjamin Harshav 

band represents the theater, whereas the paler images and 
vignettes all around it represent Chagall's fictional and 
personal world. 

A Yiddish inscription is written on top ot the first circle 
with "square " Hebrew letters. It is conspicuously placed above 
the red arc that brings together the three dominant figures of 
the theater: artistic director Efios, painter Chagall, and director 
Granovskii. To understand it, we must turn first to a study for 
the Introduction (cat. no. 8). On it, these words read: EFROS 
IKSVONARG LAGASb. (Inscriptions on the murals are 
rendered here in bold type; when the inscription is in inverted 
Yiddish, it is rendered in bold italic type.) The first surprise is 
Efros's name, which, in Hebrew, is usually spelled (consonants 
only) APRT; but here we have the new Soviet Yiddish spelling, 
with all its vowels, EFROS. His name and revolutionary stride 
underline the message: Energy! Revolution! (In the state? In 
the theater? In painting?) The other two words look like total 
gibberish, a collection of Yiddish letters; only if we read the 
text letter by letter, in the opposite direction (as if it were 
Russian), can we decipher the names ShAGAL GRANOVSKI. 

On the final canvas, however, the names are distorted 
further than on the study. Ot LAGASh, all that remains is 
, . . AG . . . Sh, with vestiges of something in between; and 
even EFROS has only EF . . . S, with paler outlines of the rest. 
Inside the words, however, in place of missing letters, there are 
tiny drawings, of Chagall painting at his easel and of the 
professorial Efros reading a book. Thus, Chagall combined two 
systems, letters and ideograms, to represent people. The 
strangest distortion is of Granovskii s name: instead of the 
inverted IKSVONARG, as it appears on the study, we read 
IKTIKTUNARG on the mural. Chagall often erased parts of a 
written message (as he deleted parts of a human body), but 
rarely (if at all) did he add to a written word. Perhaps because 
he was fed up with the theater director, Chagall began 
distorting his name from the Yiddish side. In Yiddish, "S " is 
close to "T " and easily changed; IKT could indicate the initials 
of Idish Kamer Teatr"' and is repeated twice. To squeeze the 
longer text into the allotted space, the beginning of the word 
on the Yiddish side was given in much smaller letters (the 
study has them all of the same size). When writing from both 
directions, the beginning o( GRAN{ot'ski} meets the double 
IKT, leaving a small space. Hypothetically, the thin letter "U " 
was the only one that would fit into the space; this may be yet 
another game of Chagallian deformations. 

Inversions and mirror-images of words were in fashion; 
indeed, the Russian Futurists boasted of having invented 
pereiirtni (inverted rhymes). Yet Chagall's unusual spelling, 
with most letters arranged from left to right, indicates the 
direction of the reader's walk along the canvas toward the 
stage. It may also indicate the new, European direction Yiddish 
culture was taking.^' Chagall, himself a Jewish intellectual 
moving into general culture, sometimes signed his name in 
two directions simultaneously: MARC LAGASh — first name 
in French letters, last name in inverted Yiddish — or even 
MRAC, with the "M" and the "C" in Latin letters and the 
"AR" in inverted Yiddish. The names on the mural thus signal 
the viewer's eyes to move in the direction of the stage and in 
the direction of Russian culture.^' 

The circus of intersecting circles, stripes, sections, and 
triangles acts as the ground under the figures. It also usurps 
the role of perspective. Chagall painted little figures that 
emerge from between the planes, thus creating depth between 
them. As a result, the flat surfaces, used in Modernist art to 
emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas, here create a 
multiplanar perspective. 

Some parts of the individual figures look like paper cutouts 

(for example, Mikhoels's blue shirt in the center of the mural; 
fig. 9), but most figures have three-dimensional characteristics, 
either through their rounded bodies or through cubistic 
formations of body and clothing (for example, Chagall's yellow 
suit). From group to group, perspectives are often inverted — 
for example, some miniature figures (implying that we are 
seeing them at a distance) appear not beyond but before the larger 
figures. The same ambiguity permeates Chagall's treatment of 
time. Preparations for the theater, performances themselves, as 
well as reminders from the Jewish religious and folkloristic 
past are all presented simultaneously. In a typical 
postmodernist gesture, Chagall thus blurs the boundary 
between object-language (describing the presented objects) and 
metalanguage (describing the painter's language and himself). 

In sum, space, time, and perspective are all evoked in the 
painting and are presented in discontinuous, disrupted bursts. 
The spectator's position is not taken for granted either. Chagall 
was furious that chairs were placed in the auditorium, thus 
fixing the place of the spectators. Apparently, he wanted them 
to go back and forth from mural to mural. The spectator's 
distance needs to be variable: to grasp the whole, one must 
stand at a distance; to understand the activities of the social 
groups, one needs a middling view, far enough to absorb one 
third of the canvas but close enough to recognize the figures; 
and to read the minute inscriptions and embroideries, one 
must press one's nose up to the canvas.'" 

The Introduction is characterized by a gay celebration of 
colors; some are bold and saturated (in the left half of the 
painting), some are pale and ornamented (mostly toward the 
right), some are subtle. Color, though almost entirely 
subordinated to the boundaries of the figures and geometric 
bodies, occasionally revolts against the domination of spatial 
form: the yellow on the margins of the middle circle flows over 
the geometric boundary into the space above, where it becomes 
a background for the little sketched figures; similarly, in the 
lower-right triangle the diffuse orange, though contained in 
geometric boundaries, permeates the fiddler, bird, and 
synagogue in the background, as if merging all the 
disproportionate objects in one level of color and depth; and in 
the lower-right corner, several colored stripes cover the 
indecent scene of a boy urinating on a pig. 

Thus, each major stratum of the painting is subordinated to 
other strata in parts of the canvas and asserts its independence 
in others. Where one stratum is interrupted, another takes 
over. The general principles of Chagall's art apply to the 
murals: several stylistic strains may interact in one figure or 
texture; several figures may overlap partially; deformation or 
distortion may act on any established figure or artistic stratum; 
disproportion of the sizes of figures is universally accepted; and 
any surface of one thing may become the background of 

The paucity of means available to Chagall in the winter of 
1920 is obvious, but he used anything he could lay his hands 
on. The mural was painted on thin Dutch bedsheets sewn 
together, with a poorer lining behind it. He used gouaches as 
well as kaolin with paint and water^' (in several cases, he left 
the dripping or mopped-up paint stains as part of the texture), 
sawdust, and pencil; he dipped lace in paint, pressed it to the 
canvas, and then removed it, leaving its impression in some 
areas of the canvas (for example, on the dress of the female 
dancer), and drew similar tiny patterns with a brush. 

The art of comedy 

Chagall's surrealist perception of both art and life, his turning 
away from the realism and psychologism that still reigned in 
the Russian theater, his unsentimental emphasis on the vitality 
of traditional Jewish folk culture — these traits infected the 

Chagall's Mural s j 31 

spirit of the theater and influenced its later achievements. 

The Yiddish writer Dovid Bergelson wrote that he 
welcomed the Russian Revolution but did not know how to 
write "proletarian" fiction — although he knew exactly how 
the Jewish bourgeois puts his slippers under his bed, he had no 
idea what the proletarian would do (indeed, there were no 
Jewish proletarians yet, and they had no slippers). This was a 
general problem of the new Soviet Russian theater and of 
literature as well; plays that promoted the new society were 
sloganeering and vacuous, for they did not embody any real 
society, any specific, concrete world. The importance of 
Chagall's role in the theater lay in his embracing the genre of 
the carnivalesque (as later formulated by the Russian cultural 
critic Mikhail Bakhtin), the topsy-turvy world that had 
reigned in medieval fairs. It was precisely through the carnival 
that Chagall was able to introduce the old, subverted world as 
a real, tangible substance of a work of art. This enabled the 
theater to fill its productions with a fictional world populated 
by rich archetypes, flesh-and-blood popular characters, widely 
shared jokes, and an inimitable and endearing language. And 
although these characters were grotesque and out of touch with 
reality, they also were inspired by flights of fantasy and poetry, 
and by an ahistorical sense of an absurd and comic human 

By turning that fictional world upside down, Chagall saved 
it. Later, the Yiddish Theater could be either sentimental or 
politically obnoxious and rudely critical, even anti-Semitic 
fig. lO (showing the "Yid" in full bloom, as Efros described it^); yet 

Detail of Introduction to the Yiddish Theater (cat. no. i). the tangible existence and vitality of the lost Jewish world was 

preserved, and resounded in the minds of the viewers, even 
gentiles or assimilated Jews in Russia and in Western Europe. 
There was no narrative, only a "world" — and it could be 
reproduced with plotless plays, characters with no psychology 
or grounding in reality, and dialogue with no subtlety. The 
leap that Jewish literature, art, and theater made from a 
medieval carnivalesque or comedic art to the age of Revolution 
— leapfrogging realism and psychology — made it seem fresh 
and Modernist. In this sense Chagall learned a great lesson 
from his new understanding of the master. Chagall wrote, "I 
was angry at the small town guys who read Sholem Aleichem 
and laughed all the time just for the sake of laughing. I, on the 
contrary, didn't laugh so much and thought that Sholem 
Aleichem was a 'Modernist' in art."^' Chagall may have been 
influenced by his first accepted theater work in the Petrograd 
cabaret Comedians' Resting Place, but Sholem Aleichem's 
influence is unmistakable. 

Chagall promoted awareness of the Jewish folk tradition, 
which has no language of tragedy. Entertainment and folk 
literature are fragmentary, anecdotal, joking, melodramatic, 
with no narrative or continuous structures; this is the mode of 
comedy. The traditional Jewish world, fictionalized in Yiddish 
literature, could be resurrected on the Soviet stage as an 
entertainment only in the genre of comedy. 

Chagall's perception prevailed. In 1919-20, the Yiddish 
/ players still called themselves "actors" and attempted serious 

drama; after Chagall and Sholem Aleichem, they called 
themselves "comedians." For fifteen years they did not 
approach serious tragedy. Mikhoels's stunning success as King 
Lear in 1935 was the victory of a comedian turned tragic actor. 

Unlike graven images, theater is not forbidden in the Bible. 
Rather, the prohibition against it in Jewish tradition stems 
from a ban against the Hellenistic entertainment enjoyed in 
Palestine in the early centuries of the common era. But 
comedians and clowns were not considered part of theater. 
Indeed, the European Renaissance concept of "comedians" 
enjoyed a long tradition. In Yiddish, they were called Purim- 
shpiler, komediantn, also derogatorily Knmeciyanshtshikes . A later 

version of the Sholem Aleichem Evening was titled A Spectacle of 
Comedians. Chagall's Introduction is a manifesto for that 
antirealistic, antitragic art. 

The Introduction is, in general, a celebration of Jewish 
culture and a vindication of Jewish dignity. As Chagall proudly 
wrote in his Leaves from My Notebook, "I am too shy to say what 
this little nation can show," implying primarily that it could 
produce great, universal Art (through Chagall himself), as 
earlier it had produced Christianity and Marxism. Radical 
Jewish vignettes appear on the right margins of the work. In 
the upper-right corner, an adult is being "Jewified " — we can 
clearly see the circumcision tool. In the lower-right corner a 
circumcised (and therefore Jewish) boy urinates on a pig — a 
gesture of defiance against the Christian world (fig. lo). It is as 
though Chagall were saying, "We will produce art in spite of 
all our enemies" (in Yiddish, a triumphant stance, meaning 
"we shall overcome," has this formulaic addition, oyf tselnkhes 
ale sonim)f Having painted this scene of defilement, he covered 
it over with three bars. Chagall was extremely ambivalent 
about the Jewishness of his art, and actually caused a small 
scandal when the management of the theater refused to open 
the auditorium as an exhibition to the general public; he 
argued that his art was being seen only by the hundred Jews 
who came to the theater, while he wanted a wider audience 
composed of many nationalities.''^ 

Interpreting the large mural 

The literary-minded viewer would attempt to "explain" each 
detail in the mural and the intentions and messages Chagall 
inscribed in them. But if we succeed in doing so, why do we 
need a painting at all? The observation of the fine Russian 
scholar Boris Zingerman is closer to the truth: 

In many paintings, he naively and insistently demonstrates his 
encyclopedia, ''the world of Chagall" : the sight of his native Vitebsk, 
next to it the sight of Paris, a wooden grandfather clock, a fish, a sled, 
lovers, a fiddle, patriarchal relatives, domestic animals, candleholders 
and acrobats. . . . In vain are the attempts to provide a univalent, 
rational or symbolic interpretation of Chagall's recurrent poetic images, 
reading them as a combination of signs, a rebus one can decipher. . . . 
Chagall's paintings are dominated by the magic of atmosphere, the 
mystery of a subtext you can never transform into a text.''^ 

And yet, a few specific observations are necessary in order to 
gain access into this Chagallian world. 

In the first group of figures on the left, the artistic director 
Abram Efros brings Chagall to the theater, and Chagall offers 
his palette to the director Granovskii (fig. ii). The German- 
educated, serious Granovskii wears a formal tie and jacket, but 
his legs perform a quadrille, a gesture indicating that he 
accepts the notion of merriment. The midget serving tea fits 
Chagall's description of the janitor Ephraim, who served 
Chagall milk mixed with water. ^'' Behind Chagall is a red 
background, covered with thin outlines of synagogue art, 
including the stone tablets (only four of the Ten 
Commandments are indicated here — by their first or last 
words: no, no, no, no!), a lion and other ornaments, and a bimah 
(synagogue platform) drawn as if it were a Constructivist stage. 

Four figures in the center enact the only traditional Jewish 
art: music. Indeed, the group is a kapelye of klezmers (a band of 
musicians), directed by the cymbalist, who resembles the 
theater's first composer. Lev Pulver. The musicians are actors. 
This is a realization of a metaphor: in Yiddish, zey shpiln means 
both "they play music" as well as "they perform in a play." A 
goat, Chagall's representative (it was also painted on the 
curtains), opens the performance. The bodies of the actors are 
deformed in a Chagallian manner, limbs scattered in space. 

figs. II-I2 

Details r;/" Introduction to the Yiddish Theater (cat. no. i). 

Chagall's Murals I 33 

One can recognize specific actors of the Moscow theater. 
Ironically, they all wear hats, to indicate that they act as a 
traditional Jewish group (the secular actors of the Yiddish 
Soviet theater certainly didn't cover their heads indoors). 
While the theater managers are bare-headed, the hats worn by 
the figures in the second and third groupings indicate the 
enactment by a secular culture of its religious past. 

A basic problem existed for modern Jewish artists: how 
should secular Jews, who look like everybody else, be 
represented? In Jewish literature, the problem was solved by 
locating every story in the shtetl, though the writer and his 
readers no longer lived there. The shtetl was the prototypical 
locus of Jewish iconography, with its distinctive and separate 
garb, milieu, and discourse. The painter, too, had to mark his 
secular Jews with emblems of the religious world. Thus, the 
revolutionary actors wear hats, and the cymbalist wears a 
Jewish kapote (long coat), though it is light blue rather than the 
traditional black. 

With the same logic, in the next major grouping on the 
right, a Jew is depicted with philacteries on one arm and on his 
forehead, indicating that he is in the most solemn moment, in 
mid-prayer (fig. 5). But he stands on his hands, head down, like 
an acrobat! On his belt is an inscription in childish, longhand 
Yiddish letters: ikh balavezekh ikh (I play pranks, frolic, am 
naughty, mischievous, have fun.)^° His neighbor, wearing a 
skullcap, has written on his belt, in the same childish longhand 
letters: ikh bin akrobfat) (I am an acrobat). There were no 
acrobats in the Yiddish Theater; Chagall inserted them as his 
way of indicating the upheaval of the old Jewish world and the 
entertainment achieved in the meantime. 

In the same grouping, an actor in a different kind of play 
points his gun, in a theatrical gesture, through the twisted legs 
of the praying acrobat. This may well be Uriel Acosta, the hero 
of the German playwright Karl Gutzkow's drama by that 
name, which was one of the first plays performed by 
Granovskii's theater in Petrograd and revived in Moscow 
shortly after the Sholem Aleichem Evening. Uriel Acosta 
(1585-1640) was a converso born in Portugal who moved to 
Amsterdam, where he underwent circumcision and returned to 
Judaism. He wrote an antireligious book, was excommunicated 
by the rabbis, recanted, and eventually committed suicide with 
a pistol. The figure (depicted with different attributes on his 
left and right sides), the pistol, and the circumcision scene to 
his right support this conjecture. Uriel Acosta was seen as a 
hero by secular Jews who wanted to be cosmopolitan, both 
Jewish and antireligious at the same time. 

Several more actors crowd behind the acrobats (the woman 
has been identified as the actress Sara Rotbaum, the man with 
jacket and tie as Benyomin Zuskin). Behind Rotbaum, we see a 
newspaper clipping with printed headline letters, YIDISHE 
K[amer], and, perpendicular to it, [tea}TR," superimposed on 
an old newspaper with the word BAVEGUNG (movement, 
usually used for a political or cultural trend). 

The middle acrobat has a list of great Yiddish writers stuck 
between his legs (fig. 12): Mend[ele-]Abramovitz Peretz 
Sholem Aleichem Bil [Bal-Makhshoves?] [Der] Nis[ter]. The 
first three — Mendele Abramovitz, Y L. Peretz, and Sholem 
Aleichem — are the "classic" trio of modern Yiddish literature, 
all of whom died during World War I. The last two, hesitantly 
indicated, are Yiddish writers of Chagall's generation: Der 
Nister, who wrote a children's book that Chagall illustrated, 
and his friend the Yiddish literary critic Bal-Makhshoves (Dr. 
Elyashev). Dr. Elyashev also appears near the bottom of the 
canvas, directly below the gun-holding actor. Together with 
Bella Chagall and daughter Ida, he greets Marc, who comes 
down to them under an umbrella (perhaps it is the ubiquitous 
umbrella carried by the Sholem Aleichem character 

Menakhem-Mendel). To the right, Chagall, in a hat and sitting 
on top of a thin branch, welcomes his parents. The building in 
the orange triangle resembles a traditional grave; the Yiddish 
inscription P N, which stands iov po riikbar {here lies) is 
accompanied by the letters T A (for Yiddish Theater, in 
reverse, Russian order). To the left, someone is being kicked in 
his mouth and silenced (bringing to mind the Yiddish 
expression fa rshtop ini dos moil, stop his mouth, i.e. shut him 
up) — could it be Malevich? 

This edifice is echoed at the top center by the silhouette of a 
temple (it also bears the stone tablets), perhaps alluding to 
Granovskii's conception of the Yiddish theater as "a temple of 
shining art and joyous creation — a temple where the prayer is 
chanted in the Yiddish language."" This, too, is welcomed by a 
happy Chagall figure, also with an umbrella. 

We also notice elements of Chagall's shtetl, lovingly drawn 
on Mikhoels's white belt, which is decorated with a lace fringe. 
And the smallest treasure of all: on the flutist's only leg, above 
the black vertical and horizontal stripes, there are 
Yiddish/Hebrew inscriptions, written in childish, clear, 
unconnected longhand letters, listing Chagall's immediate 
family: feyge ite [mother] yhzkl [father, in Hebrew] / 
mshe [Marc's Hebrew name "Moyshe"] blanh ["Bella-Anna" 
— Anyuta] / roze mariyaske [sisters] / dovid [brother] zisle 
[sister Zina] leyke mane [the twin sisters Liza and Manya] / 
berte [his wife Bella, by her Yiddish name] ide [daughter Ida] / 
mnahem mendl [grandfather, spelled half in Hebrew, half in 
Yiddish]" ba [unfinished] / basheve [grandmother'"] avrhm 
neyah [uncles Abraham and Noah] ." For the most part, these 
are Hebrew names, spelled in a half-Yiddishized way, as they 
are pronounced; some are spelled with Russified forms. 

On the far left, we find several isolated vignettes within 
Suprematist spaces. The art historian Ziva Amishai-Maisels 
speculates that the upper vignette represents the isolation of 
the theater in its first year in Petrograd, where Granovskii 
"talked to the lamp" (a Yiddish idiom meaning "gets no 
response"), for there were no Yiddish-speaking masses in that 
city.'" The image below is of a worker waiting to applaud — in 
Moscow, closer to the Pale, Jewish working people, NEP 
tradespeople, students, and government officials were then 
streaming into the city. 

The most puzzling images are of a cow and red-shirted 
person on both ends of the painting. One possible 
interpretation is that the green cow, with its aggressive horns, 
represents Chagall's art, forcefully entering the situation. (In 
the painting Literature we see a similar animal, mooing 
"Chagall" in Yiddish.) Indeed, Chagall favored green: his face 
in / and the Village is green; so is the face of the fiddler in AI//wV; 
in his earlier work for the Petrograd cabaret Comedians' 
Resting Place, Chagall painted the faces of all the actors green; 
he used the green cow as his emblem in revolutionary Vitebsk; 
and in the Introduction, the circle in the center, which focuses 
the "play" around it, is a saturated green. 

Who, then, are the attending figures? The figure doing a 
split on the left, according to the account of Chagall's son-in- 
law, is Mikhoels, with the attributes of folk art and play- 
acting. He welcomes the menacing, powerful Chagall; this fits 
in with the various accounts of Mikhoels's sudden conversion 
to Chagall's conception and art, and his subsequent influence 
on the whole troupe in this direction. Below, a shofar blower 
emerges from a wooden synagogue ornament, heralding and 
welcoming the newcomer. 

The red-shirted man at the far right is not necessarily the 
same as that on the left — their hats, noses, and chins are 
different. His feet are in water, a method used by rabbinical 
scholars to relax or to keep awake when studying late at night. 
With his visor hat, he may be a worker, representing the 

34 Benjamin Harshav 

proletarian audience for which, presumably, the theater was 
performing. Or could the figure at the right be Granovskii, 
resting in satisfaction at the feet of the calmed cow? In this 
case, the chicken legs under the board on which Granovskii sits 
may indicate that his enterprise is precarious — it stands on 
"chicken legs," as the Yiddish idiom would have it. He seems 
to be satisfied with the cow that now rests, topsy-turvy like the 
acrobats, after having charged in and revolutionized the 

Chagall's Introduction and Picasso's Guernica 

In many ways. Introduction to the Yiddish Theater plays a role in 
Chagall's oeuvre similar to that oi Guernica in Picasso's. Both 
are murals, made by invitation of a central cultural body of 
their respective cultures, both of which were in "diaspora" 
(Picasso's was commissioned in Paris in January 1937 by the 
Spanish government in exile). Both were made for a public 
purpose, expressing a political and cultural position. Neither 
Chagall nor Picasso were overtly political artists, but both 
eagerly responded to a public invitation and mobilized their 
entire stock of images for the purpose, and the commission 
became a quintessential encyclopedia of their previous work. 

For Picasso, in the midst of a period of stylistic hesitation, 
the commission gave new motivation to the use of his 
techniques. For Chagall, after a brief and stormy period of 
propaganda painting in Vitebsk, it also came at a crossroads. 

Picasso's mural was a summation of major artistic trends, in 
his case Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and 
political art. In Chagall's mural, various contradictory trends 
are also brought together, but in a pluralistic balance; in 
Picasso's painting they are fused within each figure. Picasso's 
organic perception of art versus Chagall's dazzling market-fair 
display is manifested in their color schemes as well: Picasso's 
painting is almost monochromatic, while Chagall's is a 
celebration of many colors and hues. 

Both artists use the irrational, nonverbal, and empathic 
power of animals: in Picasso's vision it is the Spanish bull 
(representing Picasso himself) and the heroic horse-cum-statue, 
while in Chagall's it is the green cow (also self-representative) 
and such shtetl animals as goats, chickens, and fish. 

Both artists confronted a similar task of organizing a large, 
unwieldy mural. Picasso's is slightly more than twice as long as 
it IS wide, whereas Chagall's is almost three times as long. As 
Rudolf Arnheim has pointed out, "Picasso prevented the 
composition from falling to pieces by the symmetrical 
correspondence of the flanks — the bull at the left, the falling 
woman at the right — and the roughly equilateral triangle 
culminating in the oil lamp.*^ Chagall's mural was longer and 
could not be integrated in one pyramid; hence his use of the 
"W" and the three semicircles as an underlying structure. 

There are additional devices to unify the murals. In both, a 
dynamic pulls the viewer with it. As Arnheim notes, "Any 
compositional movement toward the left . . . runs against the 
tide, because for psychological reasons the observer's glance 
proceeds freely from left to right whereas it is impeded in the 
opposite direction."*'' In Picasso's mural, there is a "movement 
of the wave of figures . . . directed toward the bull" (on the 
left), counteracting the normal, rightward current. In Chagall's 
mural, on the contrary, the basic movement is from left to 
right. It is plausible, however, that Arnheim's psychological 
rule applies only to cultures writing from left to right; the 
Jewish viewer, who writes from right to left, would have felt a 
tension while viewing Chagall's mural. There are similar 
images bracketing both works: a powerful cow or bull 
dominates the leftmost parts of the canvases, while a person at 
the right summarizes the mood of each painting — a scream in 
Picasso's and relaxed acceptance in Chagall's. 

The difference between Picasso and Chagall may be 
compared to the ciiffercnce between tragedy and comedy. 
Picasso presents the Aristotelian unities of time, space, and 
action; Chagall displays a plurality of all three. The genre of 
comedy does not require one purposeful action, but rather 
prefers anecdotes, immediate effects following each other. It is 
the heroic gesture of a Spaniard and a Communist versus 
Jewish Utopian hope and self-irony. 

The different social purposes and cultural backgrounds of 
the two artists account for the different conception of the 
whole, yet in both murals we can see the stocktaking of several 
waves of Modernism and the political urge of the artist to go 
beyond the problems of art itself Both plunged into the work 
with extreme intensity. There was also a practical difference: 
Picasso had time and could afford to make dozens of sketches 
and choose any materials that suited him, while Chagall had a 
paucity of time and materials at his disposal. 

The four Jewish muses, a wedding feast, and 
Love on the Stage 

The four paintings that hung to the audience's right in the 
auditorium represent the four "Jewish muses." The Russian 
invitation to the exhibition of Chagall's murals called them 
"Music, Dance, Drama, Literature," but Chagall, in his "Yiddish 
memoir on his work in this theater, published in 1928,^'' called 
them "klezmers, a wedding jester, women dancers, a Torah 
scribe" — traditional Jewish professions, which may be 
grasped as the folk origins of the new Jewish arts. 

The four traditional professions depicted here are part of 
Yiddish rather than Hebrew culture. Even the Hebrew Torah 
scribe in Literature is transformed into a secular figure: on his 
scroll he has written amol iz {geven} — "once upon a time," 
the conventional opening of a Yiddish folktale. Above the 
scribe, a cow moos "Chagall" (with an inverted, Russian- 
directed "L"), while above a small figure carries a chair 
inscribed Der T{eatr} (the theater). The badkhan (wedding 
jester) makes everybody cry or laugh with his improvised 
grotesque, and often bawdy, rhymes. The dancing woman, 
wearing a flowery peasant dress, dances to the Hebrew 
wedding song kol khosn. kol kale ("the voice of the groom, the 
voice of the bride"), inscribed on the hem of her dress and 
outside it, which is also part of a Yiddish ceremony. 

Above the four Arts hung a long frieze. The Wedding Table. 
It consists of two halves painted as mirror images — though 
one is turned upside down. The Hebrew inscriptions on it read 
kosher le-pesakh (kosher for Passover) and carmel (wine from 
Eretz-Israel, a Zionist element naive Chagall was unafraid to 
use in the Soviet Union). The food, however, is not part of a 
Passover meal — it has no specific Passover dishes and includes 
challah (a festive Jewish food, but forbidden on Passover). 
During Passover and the Sabbath, the richest meals in Jewish 
life are served, hence their symbolic value for this wedding 
celebration. Chagallian creations, such as a humanized fish and 
a gymnasium student (in uniform) are also served, along with a 
live chicken. 

It is tempting to assume that the murals are indicative, in a 
very general way, of the three skits to be performed here: the 
four musicians are "four agents," the acrobats perform "a lie" 
(the actual "lie" in the dialogue is the real truth, only turned 
upside down), and the wedding feast represents the double 
wedding at the culmination oi h\azel Tor. 

Across from the stage is a painting that is atypical for 
Chagall, and is known by a poetic title, l^ove on the Stage. 
Painted in airy hues, mostly shifting between gray and silver, it 
is composed of geometric figures with a rounded thickness 
reminiscent of Fernand Leger or early Malevich. It exhibits an 
impressionistic mood superimposed on cubistic forms. With 

Chagall's Murals I 35 

effort, we can discern the dancing couple at the upper right, in 
a very "un-Jewish" embrace, face to face and dancing a ballet 
movement, as hinted by the swinging blue tights on the 
woman's legs. This is a purely secular, lyrical image. 

The socks on the man bear tiny red inscriptions in Yiddish. 
On the right foot we read K[amer] (Chamber) and AIDISh 
(Yiddish) RTAET (Theater) written in five printed letters on 
each side. "Yiddish " is written in one direction, "Theater " in 
the opposite. 

On the other shoe we have a more puzzling text: 






Kh A 

When we read the text in columns from top to bottom and 
from right to left (here copied in the English direction) and 
interpolate the missing letters, we have Y. L. Peretz Shalom 
Aleichem A T (Yiddish Theater). Some letters have faded or 
were obscured by Chagall. 

Underlying the composition is a huge, stylized Shin (the 
Hebrew letter "Sh," as in Shaday, God's name on a mezuza, 
attached to every Jewish door frame), made of the rounded 
geometric arms and the red diagonal between them. We can 
also discern, on the same level, a large "G," and in the lower 
half of the panel, an "L." The three large cubistic letters of 
Chagall's name in its Hebrew spelling, ShGL, are as subtle and 
elusive as the figure of love itself. 

One might look at the whole room, "Chagall's box," in 
light of Efros's understanding of Chagall and the Yiddish 
theater as an art sprung from nowhere, with no history or 
tradition, therefore an "art of three times, " encompassing its 
own present, past, and future.'" Indeed, the large Introduction is 
a summation of Chagall's work as a whole, but without the 
dark, mystical visions of his early years and without the figures 
of old, pious Jews. It is a celebration of Chagall's and the actor's 
generation as they try to enact the past, to extract its folk 
spirit, joy, and artistic values for the present. It is a procession 
onward and upward, to an unknown future, which they will 
reach by turning their world upside down. Yet they are not 
facing the future, but the audience of the festival. On the 
right-hand wall, the past is presented, the four towering 
figures, looming large above their shtetl world. And on the 
back wall, an image of universal Love, with no specifically 
Jewish attributes, evokes a translucent, veiled vision of the 

Chagall's art, in general, developed in this direction, from a 
fictional world grounded in the past and reclaimed by means of 
deformation — to the abstract notion of human love, as diffuse 
as the colors of his later paintings. He came to embrace the 
ahistorical world of the Bible, as a humanistic vision created by 
the Jews that will save the world from an atomic disaster.^" 

This perception of Jewish culture entailed a foreboding of 
its own disaster. Aecular Jewish culture, to which Chagall, 
Efros, and the new Yiddish Theater contributed, was imported 
from general European culture. It was a Utopian effort to create 
a culture of "three times," encompassing past and future in the 
present, in one great burst of art. But secular Jewish culture 
had no true past, so it had to borrow one from the religious 
tradition; and it had no future of its own, so it borrowed one 
from the Russian Revolution. In Russia, it was wiped out by 
that Revolution itself. What remains is a heroic art that 
captured the moment of transformation. 

Chagall's work for the stage 

"Chagall's box" eclipsed his stage designs, yet they too were 
revolutionary. His early interest in theater decorations was 
inspired by Bakst, who had asked Chagall, while he was still 
his student, to work on the ballet Narcisse. When Chagall 
returned to Petrograd during World War I, it was the center of 
theater experimentation and avant-garde opposition to the 
finicky, decorative stage backdrops of the World of Art artists. 

Innovations in Russia were spurred by a new wave of little 
theaters that emerged in the decade before the Revolution. As 
the art historian Aleksandra Shatskikh has pointed out, "in the 
period of 1908— 1917 small theaters of a semi-club semi-studio 
character developed everywhere — the so-called cellars, pubs, 
cabarets, 'little stages.' The most famous of them were House of 
Interlude, Flying Mouse, Vagabond Dog, Comedians' Resting 
Place."'" Chagall's first successful production design was for one 
of three miniatures, "An Absolutely Joyful Song," staged by 
Evreinov, which opened at the Comedians' Resting Place, a 
cabaret, on January 23, 1917. For the play, Chagall painted the 
faces of all the actors green and their hands blue. In this 
establishment, the stage and auditorium were fused by one 
"unified decoration," made by S. lu. Sudeikin and others, 
which might have influenced Chagall's perception of the 
artist's role in the theater. 

In early 1919, he was commissioned to prepare the 
decorations and costumes for two plays by Nikolai Gogol' for 
the Petrograd theater Hermitage. Gogol', with his profound 
and hilarious comedy of life, was a major literary influence on 
Chagall. The production, however, was never realized. 

As Commissar of Art in Vitebsk, Chagall plunged into 
revolutionary cultural activity, including founding a new 
People's Art School and organizing mass decorations around 
the city for celebrations marking the anniversary of the 
October Revolution. Vitebsk, at the intersection of the 
railroads from Moscow and Petrograd, exhibited a feverish 
cultural activity. The Russian-speaking Jewish youth, starved 
for culture and finally liberated, plunged into all modes of self 
expression. Among the many drama circles, the most active, 
according to Shatskikh, was the theater studio of the Y L. 
Peretz Society, named for the major Yiddish writer and 
ideologue of modern Yiddish secular culture. Recent 
scholarship has revealed that Chagall became the chief artist of 
a new kind of Russian theater that emerged in Vitebsk, 
Terevsat (an acronym for Theater of Revolutionary Satire). 
Vitebsk was close to the front line of the Civil War and 
Terevsat supplied entertainment for the army as well as the 
city. It combined political propaganda with satire in a review 
based on traditions of the Russian folk theater. The Vitebsk 
Terevsat became a model for similar theaters in other cities. 

Terevsat opened on February 7, 1919, and Chagall was its 
only artist for the 1919-20 season. He designed at least ten 
productions,"' including costumes, makeup, and various stage 
objects. In April 1920, Terevsat moved to Moscow; Chagall 
came a month later. '"^ In June 1922, Meierkhol'd became its 
director, and the theater was renamed Theater of the 
Revolution at the Moscow Soviet. Chagall designed one more 
production for Terevsat, Comrad Khlestakov, a Revolutionary 
parody with allusions to Gogol'. ''^ 

The Yiddish Theater moved to Moscow in the fall of 1920, 
and in November, Chagall plunged into the immense project. 
His stage sets were truly minimal, for lack of means and 
material. In his costumes and stage designs we can see a 
combination of naturalistic, folkloristic, and comic perceptions 
of Jewish poverty, on the one hand, and strong Constructivist 
gestures, on the other. But unlike some of those who followed, 
he never gave in to pure Constructivism. 

The Yiddish Theater planned to perform Sholem 

36 Benjamin Harshar 

Aleichem's Agents while still in Petrograd. (For a translation of 
the play, see pages 164—71.) Schil'dknecht designed a realistic 
background of middle-class living, rich in details and colors, in 
the style of the World of Art. When Chagall was assigned the 
production design in Moscow, the only aspect of 
Schil'dknecht's design he took was a conipartment and a half of 
a railroad car standing at the center. He presented the double 
compartment furniture with minimalist detail and unified the 
scene with a sweeping asymmetrical arch, breaking the realistic 
illusion. On top of the arch was a tiny locomotive, and an 
inscription in Yiddish, "for smok[ers}," and, in inverted 
Yiddish, "III cl[ass}." 

The minimalism and poverty of that first production of 
Agents can be seen in a list of costumes and props required for 
the performances: 

Vovs! {Mikhoels}/ for Agents / /. Valise, hard. 

2. Coat. 5. Briefcase. 4. Matches. 5. Letter with envelope. 

6. Paper, white pages. 

Krashinski (another actor) I for Agents / 

/. Small valise. 2. Briefcase. 5. Cigarette case. 4. Cigarettes. 

J, Pages of white paper. 

As late as January i, 1922, the required inventory for the stage 
consisted of the following: 

Green curtain (left side, right side); wooden window on stand; wooden 
moon; wooden board with painting of locomotive smokestack, on stand; 
white bench (of railroad car); valise with cover for Yakenhoz, same for 
Lanternshooter; big doll (for Davidka); whistle (wooden 
instrument). "" 

their names were unmentionable in their country. During 
the purges of the 1930s, the murals were hidden and suffered 
damage. Somehow they arrived at the State Tret'iakov 
Gallery — presumably in 1950 — but were not shown. For a 
time, they were hidden in a dilapidated church building that 
was used for storage. 

Mikhoels was brutally murdered by the NKVD in 1948; the 
theater was closed in 1949, and most of its actors were put in 
concentration camps or liquidated along with Soviet Yiddish 
writers and all other representatives of official Soviet Yiddish 
culture. How did Chagall's paintings, property of the State 
Yiddish Theater, get to the State Tret'iakov Gallery? One 
version has it that the Liquidation Commission gave the 
murals to the Tret'iakov in 1950^"; another version, prevalent in 
Moscow art circles today, is that the last artistic director of the 
theater, Aleksandr Tyshler, when he saw that all was lost, 
carried the canvases on his back to the Tret'iakov.'"' One day, I 
am sure, the Tret'iakov Gallery will disclose the truth. 

The Tret'iakov conservators did a careful job in preparing 
the canvases in 1991 for "the long-distance transport firstly to 
Germany, and then at a later date to other countries."™ They 
did not attempt to restore the original colors. 

The murals now display Chagall's signatures, which he 
applied to them on his visit to Russia in 1973. Chagall, 
accustomed for so long to signing his name in French, confused 
the two languages: on the large Introduction, his signature is in 
printed Russian letters with the exception of the "G" from the 
Latin rather than Cyrillic alphabet. 

For Mazel Tor. Chagall designed a similar rounded arch and 
a minimalized kitchen, his emblematic goat (turned upside 
down) painted on the wall, minimal furniture, and several 
Constructivist patterns (cat. nos. 15-16). A plate above the 
stove has a Yiddish inscription, disintegrating into vertical and 
horizontal lines. The legible beginning reads ELEY, which 
could be either the beginning of [Sholem] Aleichem or the 
inverted name of the cook [B}eyle. 

S'A Lign {It's a Lie) is a dialogue that takes place on a train. 
An ugly story about corruption is revealed little by little, as 
the narrator keeps protesting "it's a lie" before uncovering 
another detail. Apparently Chagall's design (cat. no. 17) was so 
minimal and abstract that it was replaced with a set by Natan 
Al'tman.''^ Chagall included a home in which the roof was half 
removed, a boot was hanging out, and a huge pencil was 
leaning from the ground to the ceiling. Looming above it was a 
ten-story-high piece of paper and a huge pen, turned lamp, 
illuminating the scene. The top of the paper was imprinted 
with tentative headline letters HGSh (a distortion of Lagash, 
the inverted Chagall) and S'ALIGN S'ALIGN ("it's a lie," "it's 
a lie"). One of the costumes portrays a popular bluffer, with 
partially obscured Yiddish inscriptions on his pants; on them, 
we can read s'align several times, sheker (Hebrew for "lie"), 
parts oi sidur and talis, and perhaps the name of the corrupt 
rich man in the play, Shia [Finkelstein]. (For examples of 
Chagall's costume designs for the Sholem Aleichem Evening, see 
cat. nos. 18-20.) 

The fate of the murals 

After one year, the theater moved to a larger home on Malaia 
Bronnaia Street, but the murals remained behind. After 1925, 
the murals were displayed in the foyer of the new auditorium. 
Chagall left the Soviet Union in 1922, Granovskii in 1928 — 
thenceforth, both were considered traitors, and after the 1930s 

Chagall's Murals I 37 

Teatp mm HEHMHA 

EUffiDi KMM lElIT 

iHimmiiyi wiiomTtn AJI. rPA HOBCKKJI. 

OTKPblTHE m 7-ro 

9 m. m. 





My.u,iKii n. Ilynba 

Xjmxmi A. Ctsmmob. 

My.iuKa M. JtzpoHa. 

Cpexa U-ro Iniu GIIEKTiKJIfl HET. | EHJieibi, B3iimie Ha cpeAy, 11 hioha (200.000) abhctbht. Ha Hersepr. 12 mm. 




MacNN Ulonoiwi-AjieAxcMa 



/ irEHTIl 

.MyiMM.: Axpona u Mpaitai*- 

XyiiixiinKn: H. AjikimMt, ■. Ulami ii ■• 

Hacca rearpa oTHpbira of '2-3 sac ahr m ot 6'[. sac. boh. 

38 Benjamin Harshav 

Chapter 3: The Yiddish Art Theater 

The fame of the Yiddish Theater 

The Yiddish Theater began as a modest actors' studio in 
Petrograd in 1919 and moved to Moscow in 1920. By the mid- 
1920S, it was one oi the most exciting companies in Russia and, 
indeed, in Europe. On a visit to Russia, the Enghsli theater 
critic Huntley Carter, who wrote several books on Russian 
avant-garde theater, said, "The work of GOSET has no equal in 
Europe.'"' And the German theater critic Alfons Goldschmidt, 
after visiting Moscow in 1925, wrote, "The Moscow State 
Yiddish Theater, directed by Granovskii in ensemble with the 
actors, embodies at least the beginning of something entirely 
new, while the Western European theater, in its degeneration, 
looks in vain tor new forms. "^' 

When the Yiddish Theater came to Berlin's Theater des 
Westens in 1928, the awe-inspiring critic Alfred Kerr began his 
essay with these words: 

This is great art. Great art. 

External image and soul-shaking. The sound of words, the sound 
of blood, the sound of color, the sound of images. There are calls, voices, 
questions, shouts, choruses. It is enjoyment and horror . . . and in the 
end. human communion. 

That is. of course, pantomime with movement into eternity. 
Something wonderful. 

{Great art. ) '^ 

Similar superlatives were expressed both by visitors to 
Russia and by theater critics during the troupe's tour of 
Western Europe in 1928. After all the formal inventions of the 
first quarter of the century, the avant-garde theater had 
exhausted its innovations, and this new company seemed to 
fulfill a need at a moment of crisis. It also exemplified the new 
culture created in the wake of the Russian Revolution and as a 
result of the miraculous rebirth of the Jews. 

The Yiddish Theater no longer exists and the "air" (as 
Granovskii would have said) of that time is very distant from 
our own. Contemporaries of those events speak for themselves 
in the Texts and Documents section in this book. Among the 
original translations we have provided are several sources on 
the emergence of this theater, its methods and significance, 
Chagall's role in it, early responses to and analyses of the 
theater, the theater's role vis-a-vis the lost Jewish past, and one 
of the plays performed at the Sholem Aleichem Evening. These 
documents provide a vivid image of the theater in the context 
of its time, and there is no need to repeat it all here. Nor can 
we deal here with the later history of this theater under the 
conditions of Soviet political pressures and terror — a worthy 
topic in its own right. We shall, however, recapitulate the 
major facts and assess the key aspects of the theater's nature, 
achievement, and destruction. 

Yiddish culture and Yiddish theater 

Toward the end of the tsarist regime in Russia, new ideas were 
coalescing among the new class of Jewish intellectuals 
concerning the organized creation and promotion of a full- 
fledged national culture for the more than five million Jews in 
Russia. After the February and October Revolutions of 1917, 
when Jews were granted civil rights and could move to the 
centers of Russia, it was only natural that they tried to 
implement those ideas under the new regime. Thus, in 1918, in 
the Ukraine's capital of Kiev, there emerged an umbrella 

fig. 13 

Poster from a 1^24 perfomance, in Kiev, by the Yiddish Theater. 

Central State Archive for Literature and Art. Moscow. 

organization, Kultur-Lige (Culture League), devoted to Yiddish 
national cultural. Their program declared: 

Kultur-Lige stands on three pillars: Yiddish education for the 
people. Yiddish literature, and Jewish art. The goal of the Kuhui:- 
Lige IS to make our masses intelligent and make our intelligentsia 
Jewish. . . . 

The goal &/ Kultur-Lige is to help create a new Yiddish secular 
culture, in the Yiddish language, in Jewish national forms, with the 
vital forces of the broadest Jewish masses, in the spirit of the Jewish 
working masses, in harmony with their ideal of the future. 

The working field oj Kultur-Lige is the whole field of the new 
secular culture: the child bejore the school and in the school, education 
for the young and adult Jew, Yiddish literature, Jewish art. ''' 

The stamp of Kultur-Lige bore the inscription "Mendele, 
Peretz, Sholem Aleichem" — all of whom died during World 
War I and thus secured their status as the three "classic" 
writers of modern Yiddish literature. Theirs was sophisticated 
literature that reached the highest European standard. Deeply 
involved in understanding Jewish existence, their work formed 
a dignified foundation for a modern, secular, truly Jewish 
literature and culture. (Chagall was influenced by these three 
classic writers and included their names on the Introduction to 
the Yiddish Theater ) 

Kultur-Lige emerged during the Civil War, when Kiev 
itself was shifting from one power to another. The war, and the 
exterminating pogroms of 1919 (when about a hundred 
thousand Jews were slaughtered and several hundred thousand 
were exiled from their towns), were hard on the Kiev center; 
but its ideas were shared by other centers in Russia and in the 
newly re-established Poland. 

With the same spirit that led to Kultur-Lige s formation, a 
Jewish Theater Society was founded on November 9, 1916, in 
Petrograd. The Revolution disrupted all work in the capital, 
but its emerging cultural powers supported the rehabilitation 
of the Jews as part of the new Soviet policy of elevating those 
oppressed by the tsarist regime. On November 29, 1918, the 
journal Zhizn Iskusstva {Life of Art) announced the 
establishment of a "Yiddish workers' theater " in Petrograd, 
affiliated with the theater and performance department of the 
People's Commissariat of Education. The Jewish Theater 
Society implemented that decision. In February 1919, a theater 
studio was established and Aleksei Granovskii, who had 
studied in Germany and was a disciple of the famous theater 
director Max Reinhardt, was appointed director of the Artistic 
Division. After five months of intensive work, the studio 
became the new Yiddish Chamber Theater and began 
performances on July 3, 1919. But Petrograd was not the best 
place for Yiddish theater, and between July 7 and August 22, 
1919 the company gave performances in the nearest Jewish 
center — Vitebsk, where Chagall was then Commissar of Art 
and director of the People's Art School. Chagall had no interest 
in this theater when it visited Vitebsk. Its designs were heavily 
Symbolist, and its artists impressed him as uninteresting or 
epigones (such as the prominent but unoriginal seconci- 
generation World of Art designer Dobuzhinskii). 

During its Petrograd period, the Yiddish Chamber Theater 
included the works of Yiddish and non-Yiddish authors alike, 
producing such plays as Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blind., 
Scholem Asch's Sin and Amnon and Tamar, Gutzkow's Uriel 
Acosta, and A. Vayter's Before Dawn. It was an art theater that 
happened to perform in the Yiddish language. For lack of heat 
in Petrograd, the theater was closed for the 1919—20 season, yet 
rehearsals continued, giving Granovskii the chance to educate 
and form a well-trained and integrated troupe of an entirely 
new kind. 

The Yiddish Theater I 39 

A parallel initiative was taken in Moscow. In September 
1918, the Jewish Commissariat of the Russian government 
founded a theater section as part of its Education Department. 
According to its head, B. Orshanski, the call for actors met 
with little response because the Jewish intelligentsia did not 
support the Soviet power and "sabotaged" the enterprise. For 
that reason they gathered some young and politically 
trustworthy people, with no theater experience. Thus, an 
independent actors' studio was founded in Moscow in 1919, 
which included actors of the Vitebsk Yiddish theater studio. 

On April i, 1920, the government authority chaired by 
Anatolii Lunacharskii transferred the Yiddish Chamber Theater 
from Petrograd to Moscow. When Granovskii's theater arrived 
in November 1920 (with only eight of the original students), it 
merged with the Moscow actors' studio as well as with some 
actors from the Vilna Troupe, a recently established Yiddish art 

In 1921, Granovskii's theater was renamed GOSEKT (State 
Yiddish Chamber Theater). Performances in Moscow began on 
January i, 1921, in a hall with ninety seats and Chagall's 
murals. A year later, the theater moved from "Chagall's box," 
as it became known, to a larger auditorium, containing five 
hundred seats, and in 1924 it was renamed GOSET (State 
Yiddish Theater; for a while, it was also called the State 
Academic Yiddish Theater). 

Two magical slogans guided the new Yiddish theater and 
gave it immense prestige: "theater as art" and "theater of the 
State." Finally, Jews could have an "art theater" (not unlike 
Stanislavskii's Moscow Art Theater) connected with the most 
advanced of the other arts — graphic art, literature, dance, 
music — and separate from the kitschy entertainment stage. 
And this theater was supported by the State itself — the 
foreign State that had been the enemy of the Jews for two 
thousand years — almost a Zionist vision! The Yiddish name 
for the theater sounded even better — Moskver Yidisher 
Melukhisher Teater (Moscow Yiddish Royal Theater). It is hard 
to imagine the dignity and pride its supporters felt. Their 
tangible hope for a new secular and elite Jewish national 
culture, and the revolutionary spirit that inspired this 
enterprise made those involved open to the trends of political 
revolution and the avant-garde. 

In his Yiddish productions, Granovskii wanted the Jewish 
subject matter to represent general human values. Yet as 
director of the Yiddish Theater he felt a special mission, which 
included both raising the Jewish masses to a high cultural level 
and creating a national Jewish secular culture. In the archives 
of the theater, there is a document dating from 1920 or 1921, 
handwritten in Russian by Granovskii, describing the goals 
and organizational structure of GOSEKT. The first section 

General Principles 

•GOSEKT is the first and only attempt to create a permanent 
performing-arts theater for the Jewish nation. 

•Because of political conditions, it was hitherto impossible to 
establish such a theater. 

•Geographically, Nioscow was selected, as the cultural and artistic 
center of the life of the whole Republic. 

• Unlike all other nationalities inhabiting Russia, the Jews are the 
only ones who have no territory of their own. 

This was the succinct ideology of a political-cultural program, 
from which the organizational framework followed. To keep a 
theater of such importance alive, one needed to train personnel 
at all levels. As Granovskii saw it, there were to be three 

separate units: a School of Stage Art, to "train the personnel of 
actors and directors, who are totally lacking in the Yiddish 
theater"; a Studio, "a laboratory to develop the forms of the 
Jewish theater"; and the Theater itself, "for the broad masses." 

Granovskii and theater as art 

Aleksei Granovskii was born Abraham Azarkh in Moscow in 
1890. Moscow was out of bounds for most Jews, which means 
that his parents must have been well off and probably well 
educated and Russian speaking (it was said that he knew no 
Yiddish before he heard it from his actors).'' In 1891, all of 
Moscow's Jews were expelled (was this the source of his 
nationalist feelings?). His family settled in Riga, then the third 
largest city of Russia. Riga has a long German tradition but 
had been under Russian rule for over two centuries. There, he 
imbibed both Russian and German language and culture, and 
through them, the culture of Western Europe. Riga produced 
such contemporary intellectuals as Sergei Eizenshtein (whose 
Jewish father converted to Lutheranism and became the city 
architect), who was two years older than Granovskii. It also 
produced Shloyme Mikhoels, who, like Granovskii, was born 
in 1890. 

In 1910, Granovskii began his theater studies in St. 
Petersburg, and from 1911 to 1914 he studied in Germany at the 
Munich Theater Academy, where he worked for a season under 
Max Reinhardt. In 1917, he studied film directing in Sweden. 
Back in Petrograd in 1918, he joined the new Theater of 
Tragedy, which was supported by prominent intellectuals such 
as Maksim Gorkii and Aleksandr Blok and was devoted to 
promoting classical drama for the masses. There, he directed 
Sophocles 's Oedipus Rex and William Shakespeare's Macbeth in 
Russian. He also directed two operas, Charles Gounod's Faust 
and Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov's Sadko, and the famous 
German-language production of Maiakovskii's avant-garde 
play Mystery Bouffe, which was performed for the Third 
Congress of the Comintern. Then he strove to create a theater 
in Yiddish. 

Granovskii and his mentors believed in the creation of 
Yiddish theater as art. The amazing Jewish cultural renaissance 
of the preceding fifty years had been concentrated in literature 
and ideology; they believed that to become a full-fledged 
culture, the nation needed music, plastic arts, and theater. 
Since theater was accepted only as an art in the most modern 
sense, they recognized no earlier tradition. Granovskii was to 
begin from absolute zero. 

From the Greco-Roman period in Palestine, theater was 
banned in Judaism, though there were a few exceptions: 
Hebrew drama was written and performed in post-Renaissance 
Italy; Hebrew plays were written in the Haskala period, the 
Jewish "Enlightenment," which flowered in Berlin in the late- 
eighteenth century and spread to Central and Eastern Europe; 
and there were entertainments in Yiddish, notably the Purim- 
shpil. Nevertheless, theater in the modern, European sense was 
almost nonexistent in Yiddish. Avrom Goldfaden began a 
Yiddish theater to provide entertainment in 1876, but in 1883 
the Russian government banned all theater in "jargon" 
(Yiddish); the ban was lifted between 1905 and 1910, then 
renewed until the Revolution. Yiddish popular theater, 
primarily low-class melodrama (such as Kafka saw and admired 
in Prague in 1910), blossomed in London and New York, but 
Granovskii, like most Yiddish highbrow writers and cultural 
activists, would have nothing to do with it. (New York's 
celebrated Second Avenue Yiddish theater was considered 
terrible and kitschy, degrading to Yiddish culture in America.) 

During the 1905-10 period, when Yiddish theater was legal 
in Russia, there were important beginnings: good literary and 
theatrical plays were written by Peretz Hirshbeyn, Dovid 

40 Benjamin Harshav 

fig. 14 

Aleksei Granovskii in the 1920s. 

fig- 15 

Chagall and Mikhoels, ipzi. 

The Yiddish Theater I 41 

figs. 16-17 

Interior of the house on Bo t shot Chernyshevskii Lane, the Yiddish Theater's first home in Moscow, as it looks today. 

42 Benjamin Hanhav 

Pinskii, and others; excellent actors emerged, such as Ester- 
Rokhi Kaminski, who made a strong impact on young 
Mikhoels during her performances in Riga; and plays by 
Gorkii, Gerhard Hauptmann, Shakespeare, and Friedrich von 
Schiller, translated into literary Yiddish, were performed. 
Granovskii and his contemporaries rejected that theater too 
because it was individualistic, psychological, and literary. The 
new regime, certainly, saw those Yiddish playwrights as 
"bourgeois" writers, and Granovskii probably knew little about 
them; they were too provincial lor this snobbish disciple of 
Reinhardt. Like Chagall, Granovskii absorbed the most recent 
developments in theater technique while simultaneously 
reaching back for its sources to the folk traditions of 
entertainment and Komedyanshtshikes that preceded the literary 
theater in Yiddish. 

Granovskii's system 

In 1918, when Granovskii undertook his mission, he announced 
the search for candidates to train as actors. They were required 
to have had no previous experience with theater, and could not 
be older than twenty-seven. (Granovskii himself was twenty- 
eight.) His selection process coincided with the political 
selection process in Moscow, barring anybody with "Old 
World" conventions or habits. Granovskii made an exception 
for Shloyme Vovsi, an intellectual who studied law at 
Petrograd University but was Granovskii's age. Vovsi had a 
"monkey-face" so ugly that Granovskii found him beautiful. 
From the beginning — and under his new stage name, 
Mikhoels — he was Granovskii's right-hand man and his 
conduit to the other actors. 

In the first programmatic publication of the Yiddish 
Theater in Petrograd in 1919, Mikhoels described the situation: 

Outside, the Revolutionary wave raged, and human eyes and too- 
human thoughts, scared and scattered, blinked in the chaos of 
destruction and becoming. . . . At a time when worlds sank, cracked 
and changed into new worlds, a miracle occurred, perhaps still small. 
but very big and meaningful for us, Jews — the Yiddish theater was 
bom. ''' 

Granovskii trained his actors ab fwo, utilizing the best 
resources of the avant-garde theater. They had top Russian 
teachers to instruct them in music, rhythm and dance, gesture, 
"plastic movement," and acting techniques; they also studied 
Yiddish literature, language, folklore, and folksongs intensively 
with specialists. Each actor was to be a master of all theater arts 
and in precise command of his body and voice. The system was 
similar in part to Meierkhol'd's Biomechanics; it prepared the 
actors to be as agile as acrobats (the circus was an inspiration 
for the theater, as it had been for Meierkhol'd and Eizenshtein). 
The stress fell on language, music, and folklore — a rich, 
modern Yiddish language was an avant-garde achievement in 
itself — as it related to the Jewish fictional world they re- 

Mikhoels described the state of the students: 

Two feelings struggled in our heart: the great will to create on 
the stage in the Jewish domain and the internal doubt in our own 
powers. . . . Indeed, who were we — lonely dreamers with unclear 
strivings; what did we bring with us — except for oppressed and 
bound limbs and internal tightness, complete ignorance and helplessness 
in stage work and stage technique — nothing. . . . Yet one thing each 
of us had — fiery will and readiness for sacrifice. . . . And our leader 
told us it was enough. '' 

For Granovskii, Man was but one of the elements of a stage 
production, along with the script, the music, the sets, and the 

lighting. But, as Mikhoels wrote, "'We could only give 
ourselves, the Jew ... to give the stage Man with a capital 
"M" — this became our goal." The teaching and rehearsals 
were conducted in Russian, yet Granovskii learned some 
Yiddish from the actors' speech. A typical j'e^^t% assimilated to 
what Jews understood as high-culture German manners, 
Granovskii's ideal was silence — a state that was alien to the 
talkative Eastern European Jews who were his actors and 
audiences. He taught that 

the word is the greatest weapon of stage creation. Its value lies not only 
in speech but in silence. . . . The normal state is silence. . . . The word 
is a whole event, a super-normal state of man. . . . The intervals of 
silence between utterances of phrases or words are the background from 
which the great, meaningful word emerges. . . . 

The normal state is static. . . . The movement is an event, a super- 
normal state. . . . Every move must start from the static state, which is 
the general background from u 'hich the meaningful move emerges. . . . 
A movement must be logically articulated into its basic elements as a 
complex algebraic formula is broken down to its simple multipliers.^' 

The theater performance was a work of art, a stylized 
multimedia event that had nothing to do with Stanislavskii's 
realism. Granovskii invited the ballet master B. A. Romanov 
to teach his actors rhythmic movement, "plastics, " and dance. 
"When all this was drilled perfectly, rehearsals began, between 
150 and 250 per production. No wonder the actors who 
remained admired their director; Mikhoels called him "our 
leader." "For us," the actor wrote, "he is the highest authority 
and the last word," for "only we, the students, see what is still 
hidden from every other eye . . . the work of self-sacrifice, the 
love of art and the people, the rich content, filled with ideals, 
which his activity breathes!"'' 

In the State Bakhrushin Museum we find Granovskii's 
handwritten key to the scores for actors and for the director's 
exposition of the play; it dates from the early twenties: 




long pause 


long pause and change of mood 






modulating a word 


end of mood 


beginning of mood 



music continues 


end of music 

Modulation of movement and voice, and shifts of mood and 
dynamics, gave life to the ensemble. It was between words and 
movement that the art of the ensemble was located. The text, 
like the actor, was treated as a means to the goal, and the 
shorter the text the better. Granovskii sought a total effect, 
involving every move of a multimedia polyphony, and 
involving every spectator in every move. Performances were so 
rich because they articulated every separate medium into a 
myriad of tiny steps, each one foregrounded anci meaningful. 
The Yiddish Theater did not stage many productions, but 
almost every one was a true cultural event. Mikhoels noted his 
director's programmatic statement (made at the early studio 

The Yiddish Theater \ 43 

fig. i8 

Mikhoels as Reh Alter in Mazel Tov. 

/ see the ensemble performance, the stage action, as a choir 
action. . . . Every type, everybody's movement, everybody's acting, 
playing, painting, every individual action in the play is only a 
part of the architectonic whole. . . . Our artistic goal is the play as a 
whole. . . . And the value and significance of the smallest role is great 
in its relations to the whole dramatic construct. . . . One false 
performance of a word, or a move, not just of the central figure in a 
play but of the smallest and most overshadowed, can corrupt and 
cheapen the whole artistic image. *° 

This was Granovskii's theory in the first months of molding his 
studio. He refined this vision throughout his tenure at the 
Yiddish Theater. Granovskii choreographed a polyphonic and 
dynamic, constantly surprising stage. He was mathematically 
precise and pedantically meticulous about every detail. 

A prominent Russian drama critic and theater professional 

When one sees this "Jewish acting, " one cannot fail to be struck by the 
emotional appeal and rapidity of movement, the intensity of speech and 
vigor of the gestures. In its early productions, when the old repertory 
was being revised, poor Jews in tattered garments and comical masks of 
rich Jews — in frock-coats and stately, old-fashioned robes with 
colorful trimmings — would dart and dance about on the curious 
platforms and crooked staircases, in an ecstasy of delight. They were 
the Jews of the poorer slums. They would stand for a moment in solemn 
stillness, like monuments, before dashing away into the hum of the 
marketplace, or springing from one platform to another, or rushing 
down a flight of stairs and away."' 

The importance of language was diminished in the context 
of the polyphonic productions. The greatest successes of the 
theater occurred with audiences that hardly understood 
Yiddish; many Russians attended its performances in Moscow, 
and German audiences perhaps understood only some of the 
words. A story about HaBima, the parallel Moscow Hebrew 
theater that used similar sources of Yiddish folklore, though it 
was still influenced by Stanislavskii's method, is telling; The 
actor and director Mikhail Chekhov once visited a rehearsal 
directed by Vakhtangov. Chekhov, who did not know Hebrew 
(neither, for that matter, did Vakhtangov), said to him, "I 
understood it all except for one scene." Vakhtangov continued 
to work on that scene, and on his next visit Chekhov 
understood it perfectly. The scene was not effective if you 
needed the words. The lack of a common language among the 
audience members encouraged Granovskii's virtuoso treatment 
of the nonverbal aspects of this Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. 

For the same reason, ideology was unimportant as well. 
Like Maiakovskii and Meierkhol'd, Granovskii was willing to 
incorporate a socialist propaganda message in whatever play he 
performed — what counted to him was not the message but 
the effectiveness of the play's impact on the viewer. Indeed, 
ideology was almost an excuse for producing a play. As soon as 
the troupe appeared in Western Europe in 1928, Granovskii 
was accused by Lunacharskii of neglecting socialist ideology 
and the theater was summoned back to Moscow. (Granovskii, 
fortunately, remained in the West.) 

The theater's greatness, however, did not rest solely on 
Granovskii's polyphonic approach, nor on his mathematically 
calculated scores and directing. It derived rather from the 
fusion of his ideas with a Jewish fictional world created by 
modern Yiddish literature, and elevated to art by Chagall. As 
in Chagall's work itself, another language was superimposed on 
the languages of avant-garde theater: a powerful, time-forged, 
fictional world, with a series of generalized but unique types. 

Other Russian directors of the time merged leftist art with 
ideological slogans, but ideology is flimsy and transient, while 

Benjamin Harshav 

fig. 19 

Chagall's set for Mazel Tov. 



^ *M*P"y^i ; 

-"^mI / ^B^^^^^^^^^^B^^^^^^^^^B 


1 ^niWW^BBs 

The Yiddish Theater I 45 

a fictional world with unique prototypical characters remains 
in the imagination of the spectator. The ideologies that were 
attached to GOSET's productions were easily forgotten: "They 
went out to curse and found themselves blessing," as one critic 
put it. Indeed, such estranged semi-Jews as Osip Mandelshtam 
and Shklovskii saw in the theater's productions the vitality 
(and tragic end) of the shtetl world, and paid no attention to 
the obvious Soviet message."' 

This fictional world was raised to the level of a timeless 
myth through Granovskii's rhythm of "spots," which broke 
down the continuities of character and plot as if they were the 
subject matter of an Analytic Cubist painting. It was Chagall 
who taught him to depart from realism and continuity of space 
and time, and to embrace simultaneity of action on several 
levels (for which not Chagall, but his Constructivist followers, 
prepared multilevel stages). 

The fictional world 

Chagall and Granovskii were polar opposites: the former was 
emotional, "childish," "crazy," the very embodiment of the 
awakening folk type from the Jewish Pale, while the latter was 
rational, Europeanized, German-trained and assimilated, 
mostly silent, precise, and disciplined. They met at the very 
beginning of the Yiddish Theater in Moscow, for a production 
of three negligible skits, yet the collision of these two willful 
originals changed the course of the theater from then on. 

One critic bluntly asked about Granovskii, "This alien Goy 
will build a Jewish theater?" The program for a Petrograd 
performance of his Chamber Theater carried a notice, in half- 
German, half- Yiddish, that typifies Granovskii's attitude: Das 
p//blik//m wert geheten entzagen zikh fun aplodhnientn urn tsn 
behalten cii gantskeyt fun ayndruk. (The audience is requested to 
refrain from applauding to preserve the wholeness of the 

Granovskii's productions in Petrograd might have been 
perfect, but no one remembered them. It was only after 
Chagall's influence on the theater that its stunning effoct was 
achieved — the Sholeni Aleichem Ei'ening was performed three 
hundred times. After Chagall's departure, Granovskii revived 
another good (and thematically Jewish) play, Gutzkow's Uriel 
Acnsta, but it was a boring flop that endangered the very 
existence of the theater. Only a return to Sholem Aleichem, as 
seen through Chagallian eyes, put the Yiddish Theater back on 
center stage. 

The linchpin between Granovskii and Chagall was 
Mikhoels. Shloyme Vovsi — Mikhoels — was born in Dvinsk, 
midway between Chagall's Vitebsk and Granovskii's Riga. 
Dvinsk, part of two different cultural worlds, shared foatures of 
both. For that reason, Mikhoels found a common language 
with and admiration for both Chagall and Granovskii. 
Mikhoels, one of eight sons of a rich merchant, received a 
traditional Jewish education until the age of fifteen, and was 
steeped in Jewish learning and folklore. Like Chagall's, his 
family adhered to the Byelorussian brand of Hasidism, Chabad, 
typified by emotionalism, warmth, and joy. Both Mikhoels and 
Chagall loved Jewish folk culture and knew it inside out. 

However, in Western Lithuania, where Mikhoels was born, 
a rich man's home was influenced by the Haskala and by an 
admiration for Russian and German culture. 'When his father 
went bankrupt, the family moved to Riga, where Mikhoels 
finished a science-oriented Russian high school. He married a 
daughter of Yehuda-Leyb Kantor, a rabbi, doctor, tnaskil 
(secular, intellectual), Hebrew poet, and editor of a Russian 
newspaper in St. Petersburg, Ri/sskii Evrei (The Russian Jew). 

After being rejected by St. Petersburg University because 
he was a Jew, Mikhoels studied in Kiev; in 1915, however, he 
was admitted to the Law School of Petrograd University. But 

in 1918, his attraction to acting and his commitment to Jewish 
culture led him to Granovskii's budding studio. As an actor, 
Mikhoels combined his intellectual powers, a restrained 
emotionalism, and the skills he had learned under Granovskii's 
tutelage to create one celebrated role after another. The essence 
of his art, however, came from Chagall: the painter was the 
source of the tragicomic perception of the absurdity of Jewish 
(and general human) existence, evoked through a 
demonstrative antirealism. 

Almost from the beginning, the aloof Granovskii charged 
Mikhoels with conducting the daily work of the troupe. 
Mikhoels was stage director, and before each production he 
announced a competition for each role. Mikhoels read to them 
from the newly published muhivolume Jewish Encyclopedia in 
Russian. Mikhoels's enthusiastic "conversion" to Chagall led to 
the conversion of the theater as a whole. Under Mikhoels's 
guidance, the actors (all of whom came from various towns in 
the Pale) recovered from their childhood memories the 
gestures, movements, intonations, and sensibilities of the 
Jewish shtetl world. Mikhoels and his counterpart Benyomin 
Zuskin (another 'Western Lithuanian) worked together to bring 
to light the subtle connotations and gestures of the 
disappearing Jewish world. This was knowledge that no 
teacher could provide; it was the source of the emotive depth 
that was then stylized and refined by Granovskii's system. 
Granovskii embraced the Jewish fictional world and integrated 
it into his polyphonic conception, creating theater productions 
that were closer to a mythological happening than to a 
formalist performance. 

The Sholem Aleichem Evening was based on character types 
familiar from Yiddish literature and folklore. The central 
character oi Agents is Menakhem-Mendel, a symbolic character 
based on Sholem Aleichem's book by that name, and as popular 
in Yiddish discourse as Hamlet is in English. Menakhem- 
Mendel is the prototype of a shlemiel. who seesaws between 
soaring fantasy and searing failure. A shtetl type, he attempts 
all Jewish luft-parnoses (professions in the air), such as 
matchmaking {shlemiel that he is, he brings together "a wall 
with a wall," a bride with a bride) and stock-market 
speculation (with much the same success). Agents provides only 
abbreviated glimpses of Menakhem-Mendel, but the spectators 
were expected to know the type. Menakhem-Mendel, acted by 
Mikhoels, was also the central figure of the Yiddish Theater's 
200,000 (based on Sholem Aleichem's The Great Winning Ticket), 
and the later version, titled simply Menakhem-Mendel . In 1925, 
he became the hero of the film Jewish Luck, which boasted 
Granovskii as director. Lev Pulver as composer, Edward Tisse 
(Eizenshtein's cameraman) as cinematographer, Isaac Babel as 
screenwriter, Mikhoels, Zusman, and the cast of the Yiddish 
Theater as actors; even the train compartment used for the 
stage production was adapted and became the trademark of the 

Other variants of the same fictional world were brilliantly 
conceived for plays based on Goldfaden's Sorceress, Peretz's At 
Night in the Old Market Place, and Mendele's Travels of Benjamin 
the Third. The texts were treated nonchalantly, shortened and 
augmented with other works by the same authors. What 
Granovskii kept intact were the characters and the symbolic 

In an interview given in Berlin in April 1928, Mikhoels 
formulated "the method of scenic social analysis": 

Instead of the individual's moods, half words, halftones — explicit, 
burgeoning social feelings: instead of isolated heroes with private, 
purely subjective, limited experiences — joyful mass movements, with 
their noise, their dancing on the ruins of the old, their great social 
hopes and rational activities: instead of types — social figures that 

46 Benjamin Harshav 



>," kii 




fig. 20 

At Night in the Old Marlcet Place, designed by Robert Fal'k. 

fig. 21 

The Travels of Benjamin the Third, designed by Robert Fal'k. 

The Yiddish Theater 47 

convey the breadth of large human masses, of human collectives; instead 
of family conflicts, instead of'Chekhovism, " instead of sadness and 
melancholy — large social contradictions which create the background 
for the whole action on the stage. "^ 

No doubt, part of this language was due to the fact that 
Mikhoels toed the Party hne; yet part of it was a true theatrical 
vision, which had excited European audiences. Indeed, the 
"crazy," unreal characters of classic Yiddish literature were 
social types representing a codified, stereotypical society — 
which is why the theater went back to the classics rather than 
dealing with the early twentieth-century Yiddish literature of 
individualism and impressionism. The ideological conflict was 
described by Mikhoels thus: 

Looking for the means, how most sharply and conspicuously to uncover 
the tragic content of past Jewish life, condemned to disappear in our 
country, the theater showed a great diversity in evoking new stimulae 
in its development. To hone the characters, to perfect the stage devices, 
uncover new social kernels hidden in the atrocious, often-anecdotal 
classical figures — this was our continuing path. Isn't tragicomedy 
one of the phenomena typical of our contemporary epoch?'^ 

This ideological conflict, combined with the artistic tensions 
within the polyphonic art, produced new, hybrid genres: At 
Night in the Old Market Place was dubbed "A Tragic Carnival," 
The Travels of Benjamin the Third "A Touching Epic," 200,000 
"A Musical Comedy," Trouhadec "An Eccentric Operetta." 

Granovskii did not mind being eclectic. He harnessed any 
and all means of the contemporary Russian and European 
avant-garde theater for his new concept: a surrealist perception 
of the fictional world of Jewish literature, refracted through the 
tragicomic and polyphonic, kinetic and musical, rationally 
calculated multimedia event. A historian of the avant-garde 
theater in Soviet Russia noted: 

At the same time it is obvious from early accounts of their work that 
while they borrowed much from Meyerhold — his system of 
biomechanics, for instance — they had nothing in common with his 
intellectualization of theatrical form. They held his theories but 
expressed them with more drama and play of mood. Particularly is 
this seen in their stage settings. They believed that the decor should 
evolve images in the minds of the audiences — but they approached the 
mind through the senses. Their settings were always highly functional 
— look, for instance, at the settings for Goldfaden's The Witch, 
three-dimensional combinations of planes, ladders and platforms 
arranged in a staccato picture that stabs the mind into an awareness of 
incoherent pain. The idea of the structure is pure Meyerhold — the 
carrying out of the idea has the stamp of ecstasy, mystery and 
unfathomable sadness. A great contribution was made by such 
expressionists as the artists Chagall and Rabichev, and later by 
Nathan Altman, Rabinovich and Talk. They lit up the stage with a 
series of vivid pictures, always three-dimensional and mobile, which 
seemed to have a life of their own, which harmonized with and 
enhanced the grotesquerie of the stylized movements and which 
underlined the inherent colour and richness in the Jewish character.'^ 

This conception could almost be a description of Chagall's 
art. Chagall left the Yiddish Theater after its first production, 
yet the artists that succeeded him were his admirers and 
disciples. Moreover, the conception of the theater as a whole 
was influenced by him, as numerous accounts claim. An 
unexpected witness was David Ben-Gurion, who visited 
Moscow in 1923."^ Of the Yiddish Theater's production of 
200,000 he noted, "They sit on roofs, ledges and stairs, don't 
walk but hop, don't go up but clamber, don't come down but 
tumble and leap — Sholem Aleichem is unrecognizable." The 

set was Rabichev 's, yet this is clearly the description of a 
Chagallian placement of characters and conception of 
"groundless" space. Ben-Gurion was never known for his 
appreciation of literature or art, but he registered what he saw. 
Chagall's reading of Sholem Aleichem's authentic topsy-turvy 
world is absolutely correct. 

The German critic Max Osborn also visited Moscow in 
1923, and on his return he wrote an essay on Chagall. He 
described 200,000 in this way: 

The curtain goes up and you see a strange chaos of houses, intertwined 
in a Cubist manner, rising one above the other on different levels. 
Intersecting one another at sharp angles, they either stand below wide 
roofs or suddenly appear without a roof altogether, like a man taking 
off his hat, and display all their internal secrets. Here and there, 
bridges and passways are drawn; wide streets rise and fall diagonally. 
Meierkhotd's Constructivist stage is embodied here in original 
variants. The Cubist, linear play of these forms is complemented and 
enriched by Cezanne colors. Your eye perceives a fantastic interpretation 
of a Jewish-Russian small town, presented in the narrow confines of a 
stage in an unusually joyful and charming formula. Before the 
spectator's eye, everything can happen simultaneously: the events in the 
tailor shop, scenes among the populace of the shtetl who accompany the 
play and the experiences of the main characters as their own — a 
picturesque, machine-like, mimic-acrobatic choir. 

When the news arrives about the tailors unexpected great win of a 
huge sum, setting the whole town into an unusual excitement, 
suddenly, high above the roof of one building, appears the figure of a 
Jew with a red beard and a green greatcoat, with a sack on his back 
and a staff in his hand. Instinctively I said aloud: "Chagall!" And 
suddenly everything became clear: this is the world of Chagall. Prom 
him, everything emerged: the young artist-decorator Rabichev' s 
creations, Granovskii' s constructions, and the accompanying music of 
the composer Pulver. The latter, with unusual expressiveness, embodied 
Oriental motifs, ancient Jewish images, and Russian songs in operatic 
melodies, with trumpets and kettledrums. 

Later, in Mikhoels's dressing room, Osborn learned that, 
indeed, "Marc Chagall had played a decisive role in the 
development of the whole stage art of the Yiddish Chamber 
Theater; that, in this circle, he was considered the great 
originator and inspiration." He also learned that "Chagall's 
box" was preserved like a temple in the "House of Yiddish 
Theater Art" (as the former small theater was called). 

It is no accident that painting exerted such an influence on the 
stage, no whim of a theater director attracted by the work of an artist. 
It was a stronger force, an inner necessity. Always, when the 
personality and the school of a master truly find a clear and strong 
expression for the cultural spirit of the time — the stage is captivated 
by it — and only then it is captivated. . . . Like no one else in the 
young Russia of our days, Chagall has the stunning power of 
transforming the elements of an exceedingly rich and profound artistic 
folk culture into colorful, dreamy visions, striking our imagination. ■" 


Monti Jakobs, the theater critic for the prestigious German 
newspaper Vossische Zeitung, began his review of the Yiddish 
Theater's 200,000 thus: "HaBima, but joyful. The same 
intoxication as in HaBima, the sd^me furor judaicum, it is a play 
that pulls the spectator out of his seat and draws him into the 
strong rhythm emanating from the stage." This is not the place 
to discuss HaBima at length, but a few words are in order, for 
the two theaters are often mentioned together. 

A group of young people gathered before World War I in 
Bialystok to create a new kind oi bima (the Hebrew word for 
"stage"; ha is the article) in order to perform in the budding 

48 Benjamin Harshav 


^^^^^^^^^H .jj^riitfil^A.ih^^^^^^^^^^^^^l 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^"'^ ^-i^^^^^^^^^^^^^l 

Hr^ ] 

r j^^^^y 

^^^K^^^^^^^K * .^ .^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^1 

fig. 22 

Mikhoels and Chagall at thar last meeting, in New York City in 1944. 

The Yiddish Theater I 49 

spoken Hebrew language. In 1918, they arrived in Moscow and 
received the patronage of the great Stanislavskii, and HaBima 
became one of the four studios attached to his Moscow Art 
Theater. The young Vakhtangov, Stanislavskii's most famous 
disciple, became HaBima's director. In November 1918, 
HaBima was recognized as a Soviet State theater. With The 
Eternal Jew, The Dybbuk, and other plays, HaBima entered 
general theater history; its 1926 tour of Europe was a great 
triumph, especially in Germany, then the center of European 

Hebrew was the language of the holy books, but during the 
Modern Jewish Revolution it rapidly expanded its genres into 
secular literature, science, and politics. It was not easy to turn a 
language of religious texts into a spoken language, dealing 
with mundane and secular topics, yet between 1906 and 1913 
the first Hebrew speakers emerged in Palestine. HaBima was 
an early attempt at speaking the Biblical language on stage 
(most of its own actors knew no Hebrew beforehand). Thus 
two Jewish theaters in Moscow, in two languages, emerged as 
Soviet State Theaters in the first years following the 

Soon the "war of the languages" was raging. Those who 
wanted to revive Yiddish culture in Russia saw Hebrew as a 
religious vestige of old times, not the language of the masses.** 
Evsektsiia (the Jewish Section of the Communist Party) battled 
the recognition of HaBima; its leader, Dimandshteyn, claimed 
that HaBima was "a whim of the Jewish bourgeoisie; the 
money of the Revolutionary power should not be allowed to 
support a theater the peasants and workers don't want." But 
the most illustrious Russian intellectuals of the day supported 
the new phenomenon in the lofty Biblical language; Gorkii 
and Fiodor Chaliapin wept during its performances. Leaders of 
the Russian intelligentsia wrote a letter to Lenin on its behalf, 
and the Commissar of Nationalities — Stalin himself — 
overruled Evsektsiia and saved HaBima. 

In January 1926, the Moscow State Theater HaBima 
departed on its spectacular tour of Western Europe and the 
United States.*'' Most of the troupe did not return to Russia, 
and eventually re-established HaBima in Tel Aviv, where it 
became the Israeli National Theater. 

Both HaBima and GOSET drew on the achievements of the 
Russian avant-garde theater, though HaBima, still in the 
Stanislavskii tradition, was more conservative and 
expressionistic. Both derived their strength from the same 
collective Jewish folk tradition, expressed in mass ensemble 
scenes and the multimedia polyphony of music, dance, sets, 
and stage scenes. HaBima, too, was based on the Yiddish 
literary tradition (Dovid Pinski's The Eternal Jew, An-ski's The 
Dybbuk), but translated into Hebrew. However, the solemn 
language of the still uncolloquial and Biblical Hebrew 
influenced the pathos and the elevated, heroic national style of 
HaBima; it did not have the humor, irony, or flexibility of 
moods typical of popular Yiddish. Although emanating from 
the same national milieu, HaBima fostered the Hebrew genre 
of high tragedy, oriented toward a Utopian dream, while 
GOSET showcased the Yiddish genre of comedy, looking the 
tragic end of a culture straight in the eye. 


In 1927, in recognition of their artistic contribution, 
Granovskii, Mikhoels, and Zuskin were awarded the title of 
People's Artist of the USSR. And finally, the theater was 
allowed to go abroad. On April 7, 1928, the Yiddish Theater 
performed 200,000 in Berlin, where it received more than forty 
reviews. Its reception surpassed anything other Russian 
theaters experienced, and a book was published to understand 
it.'" Berlin was the center of innovative theater at the time, and 

theater enjoyed the popularity of sports events in America. As 
many reviews indicated, "Granovskii was received in Berlin as 
a new theatrical messiah, a more innovative and revolutionary 
director than Meyerhold, Reinhardt and Piscator."" 

GOSET traveled throughout Germany and visited Vienna 
and Paris, but toward the end of the year, it was forced to 
return to Russia. Granovskii stayed in the West; after several 
unsuccessful attempts, he had success with Arnold Zweig's 
Sergeant Grisha. produced in Berlin in 1930, and he also made 
several German films. Apparently, he fled Germany with the 
rise of the Nazis, and faded into oblivion. On March 11, 1937, at 
the age of forty-seven, one of the original theater directors of 
the century died in Paris. At about the same time, the great 
innovator Meierkhol'd, who had sold his soul to the 
Communists, was tortured to death in a Soviet prison. 

In 1928, Mikhoels became the director of the theater. He 
enjoyed great fame in Russia and was accepted in Moscow's 
high society. He continued performing Jewish plays, insisting 
that this was the task of the Yiddish theater — classical and 
Russian plays were better performed in the Russian Chamber 
Theater next door. But pressures and criticism were incessant. 
During the purges of the thirties, Stalin's brother-in-law and 
right-hand man Lazar Kaganovich came to a performance. He 
inspired terror in the director and actors, screaming that it was 
a shame to show such crippled Jews, "Look at me, I am a Jew, 
my father was also like this: tall, broad, healthy."'" Mikhoels 
immediately started rehearsing a drama, Moyshe Kulbak's 
Boytre; then Kulbak himself was arrested and liquidated and 
his plays were forbidden. 

In 1935, Mikhoels performed one of his greatest roles — King 
Lear. In the early years of the theater, Mikhoels had recognized 
the tragic depths encompassed by comedy, and had described 
the theater and the contemporary human condition as 
"tragicomedy." Now he inverted the relationship and brought 
all his comic experiences to bear on this tragic role. The power 
and scope of the impact on the Russian theater was 

During World War II, he became chairman of the Jewish 
Anti-Fascist Committee, seeking international help in the war 
against Hitler. In this function, he came to the United States 
and saw Chagall again." But in 1948 he was sent to Minsk, 
where he was brutally murdered on Stalin's order. Most 
Yiddish writers, actors, and activists were arrested; some were 
shot, others tortured. The theater was closed, along with the 
Yiddish newspaper and publishing house. 

Production designs from throughout the theater's brief 
history were placed in the State Bakhrushin Museum in 
Moscow. There, they were sealed in a special room along with 
the archives of the Russian Chamber Theater, which was also 
liquidated. A fire broke out at the Bakhrushin — only in this 
room — and the set designs were burned around the margins; 
the documents also suffered a layer of water damage. To this 
day, the causes and facts of that destruction have not been 

Other documents of the theater are kept in the excellent 
literary archives CGALI (Central State Archive of Literature 
and Art), where we were allowed access to all the papers. 
However, the large files of the "Liquidation Commission" of 
the Yiddish Theater have disappeared. For the sake of the 
martyrs, it would be an act of mercy to reveal exactly what 
happened and how. 

50 Benjciii/m ILirsha 

Chapter 4: Chagall's Cultural Context 

We know very little about Chagall's early years; we don't know 
his mother's maiden name, for example, or when his parents 
died. My Life, his elliptical, colorful, and self-centered 
autobiography, is scarce on facts and notoriously unreliable.''' 
Although many or most of Chagall's stories may be apocryphal, 
and few specific facts are known, we can reconstruct the 
cultural world in which he grew up." To be sure, an artist's 
origins must not be confused with his art, especially when it is 
as complex in its cultural discourse as Chagall's. But 
background does provide an essential key to its understanding. 
Chagall worked in the modes of European painting, though his 
approach was strikingly different, and that difference can be 
explained to a large extent by the modes of Jewish discourse he 
brought with him. Chagall himself understood the issue when 
he wrote, "It I were not a Jew (with the content I put into that 
word) I wouldn't have been an artist, or I would be a different 
artist altogether.'""' We shall try to sketch here the general 
outlines of that context, focusing mainly on Chagall's Jewish 
background. The impact of Russian culture, French painting, 
and Modern art on his work are well known, and are not 
repeated here. 

Empire within empire 

There are many misunderstandings about the context of 
Chagall's childhood. This stems from a larger 
misunderstanding about Russian Jewry, for there is a general 
assumption that a Jewish religious minority existed in the 
midst of Russian culture, the equivalent of Jews in Germany in 
the 1920s or in America today. Actually, a vast Jewish "empire" 
had developed in Eastern Europe in the midst of a huge 
cultural desert. 

Chagall's native city, Vitebsk, is mentioned in documents as 
early as the eleventh century. In the Middle Ages, the city 
belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which 
encompassed Lithuania proper, all of what is now Belarus, parts 
of Latvia, some areas of Russia, and Ukraine. In the fourteenth 
century, Lithuania merged with Poland, which became the 
largest state in Europe. After the Jews were expelled from most 
of Western Europe, by the sixteenth century perhaps three 
quarters of world Jewry lived in Poland (the rest, mostly 
former Spanish Jews, lived in the Ottoman Empire). When 
Poland was devoured by its neighbors at the end of the 
eighteenth century, the Russian Empire took the largest chunk, 
including what is today central Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, 
Lithuania, part of Latvia, as well as Bessarabia (today's 
Moldavia). The Russian government did not allow Jews to live 
in Russia proper, and enclosed them in the occupied territories 
in a huge geographical ghetto called the Pale of Settlement. In 
time, only a few thousand Jews, the very rich and educated, 
were allowed to live outside the Pale, in Kiev, Moscow, St. 
Petersburg, or smaller cities. The Jewish masses (over five 
million strong) thus lived among the Empire's Western 
minorities, far from the centers of Russian culture and a 
Russian-speaking population. Thus, they preserved their own 
language and culture. 

The demographic structure of Russian Jewry is revealing. 
In 1897, for example, Jews constituted only 11. 8 percent of the 
population of Vitebsk Province, but they accounted for 66.3 
percent of the population of all "small towns" in that Province, 
and a majority of the population of all "cities." (The distinction 
between "city," "town" [shtetl], and "village" was 
administrative and recorded in the official Russian census.) 
This distribution was typical for Byelorussia, and, basically, for 
the whole Pale.'" The predominantly Jewish towns and cities 
were surrounded by a sea of "villages." Vitebsk Province 

included 26,590 communities, but only forty-eight of them 
were cities or towns with a population above 500. In the 
thousands of small villages, Jews constituted only 1.9 percent 
of the population (typically, village Jews were inn-keepers, mill 
owners, estate managers, and artisans, but not peasants). Until 
1861, the peasants in those villages were serfs, the property of 
Russian or Polish landowners. Even after the serfs were granted 
freedom, and until the Revolution, Russia was a rigidly class- 
based society. 

The Yiddish word .f/j^e'//"* (diminutive of shtot, "city") in 
Western languages was often translated as "village" (in French, 
village from ville). Yet, unlike the village, the small town had 
no land or peasants. In Yiddish, the concept of "village" 
connoted something entirely different: it was a place inhabited 
by mostly illiterate Christian peasants, working the land with 
little contact to any modern technology or industry, who would 
come to the town market, get drunk, and exhibit their physical 
prowess. In Yiddish, the peasants were caWed poyerim, or the 
synonymous goyim (gentiles). 

Just as the English language distinguishes between genders 
(for example, waiter and waitress, policeman and 
policewoman), so did the semiotics of that time distinguish 
people by their social and ethnic groups. In Russian, one could 
not meet just a person in the street, but a peasant or a man of 
the gentry, a child, an old man, a woman, a Jew, or a Jewess. In 
Yiddish, one met either a Jew or a goy, a bachelor or a virgin, a 
sheygetz (male gentile) or a shikse (female gentile). The Jewish 
stereotypes of the goy were mostly negative: he was dangerous, 
dumb (someone might have a goyisher kop, "the brain of a goy"), 
and a drunkard (a popular folksong goes: oy, oy, shiker is a goy I 
shiker is er, trinket! niiz er I vayl er iz a goy, "oy, oy, a drunkard is a 
goy / he is drunk, for he must drink / for he is a goy"). Secular 
Jewish culture tried to overcome that gulf, stressing the young 
goy's closeness to nature, his health and sexuality, and the 
Jewish weakness in those areas; hence Chagall's idealized 
goyish Dn/nkanl And his idealized village in / and the Village. 
Nevertheless, the world was seen in bifurcated categories. It 
was not just animosity, erupting from time to time, that 
separated Jewish from peasant humanity, but a whole 
conceptual world. 

The Jewish shtetl, no matter how small or unpaved, was 
essentially an urban location, where the people did not work 
the soil. Indeed, among the Jewish population of Vitebsk 
Province, 39 percent lived on trade and 36 percent of the 
breadwinners were artisans. In modern terms, the shtetl was 
the shopping mall of the area; it was a marketplace and a 
center of artisan production, where peasants came to buy and 
sell, and from which Jews would go to peddle their goods and 
skills in the surrounding villages. Rich Jews also traveled to 
the larger cities and other lands, aided by their common 
language, thus spreading a commercial network from the 
village to town, to Western Europe and the Russian metropolis 
and back. 

In the cities and towns there were also churches and 
Russian administrative and educational institutions, and 
Christians comprised the ruling classes, such as the Russian 
administration (in which no Jews were represented), Polish and 
Russian landowners. Christian city householders (burghers), 
and even the dreaded gorodovoy (policemen).*' The provincial 
capital was also home to semiurbanized peasants from the 
surrounding villages, and soldiers (mostly of peasant stock) 
stationed there. Whereas the peasants spoke Byelorussian (a 
Slavic language with hardly any literary culture before the 
Revolution), the language of the authorities and of the ruling 
culture was Russian. 

Thus, the vast Jewish "empire " in Eastern Europe was based 
on a web of geographical centers, in which Jews regularly 

Chagall' s Cultural Context I 51 

52 Benjamin Harshav 

constituted between half and two thirds of the population but 
were surrounded by masses of illiterate peasants and were 
dominated by a narrow layer of the ruling classes. Jews had a 
dense network of social and cultural institutions of their own, 
including an educational system, societies, synagogues and 
prayer houses, hospitals, cemeteries, philanthropic 
organizations, publishing houses, newspapers, community 
administrations, taxation, religious authorities, and political 
movements (such as Hasidim) — all under the aegis of one 
religious framework, officially separating the Jews from the 
governing Christian Orthodox Church. Contact between Jews 
and non-Jews was frequent, but on a very marginal range of 
topics having nothing to do with internal Jewish culture, 
learning, and consciousness. Thus, the Jews were not a 
minority, as they are in the West today, but a totality in their 
own culture and a nullity in the framework of state and 
territorial power. 

Discourse in this autonomous world was conducted in three 
specifically Jewish languages: Yiddish was used for daily life, 
education, and letters to and from women; Hebrew was 
reserved for the Bible, the library of texts, written documents, 
and letters written between men; and Aramaic was the 
language of the Talmud and Rabbinic law. This extraterritorial 
society, defined by religion, lived in a world consolidated by 
the Yiddish language. In 1897, almost 98 percent of the 
5.2 million Jews of the Russian Empire declared Yiddish as 
their language. Hebrew and Aramaic learning were embedded 
in Yiddish and quoted in Yiddish discourse. Yiddish contained 
a folklorized universe of beliefs, stories, conventions, habits of 
discourse, and oral and written literature. Yiddish separated 
the Jews from the surrounding world, but it also served as a 
bridge to it: Yiddish folklore absorbed many elements of 
European and Slavic folklore, merging it with elements of the 
Hebrew tradition and library. Their language contained 
important aspects of German, Hebrew, and Slavic. Thus, 
Yiddish speakers could easily glide into any of the component 
languages. From the end of the ninetenth century, Yddish was 
the main vehicle for the Modern Jewish Revolution, 
manifested in the development of modern literature, 
ideologies, schools, and cultural institutions. 

Lithuanian Jewry was characterized by an intensive and 
thorough approach to learning and knowledge, and it 
developed yeshivas (high-level academies). Lithuania exported 
rabbis, Hebrew teachers, Yiddish writers, artists, and 
intellectuals around the world, to Odessa, Warsaw, and 
St. Petersburg, to New York, New Orleans, and Paris. '°° Vilna, 
the Western capital of Lithuanian Jewry, was the center of the 
Misnagdim movement, which fought against irrational and 
ignorant Galician Hasidim. Litvaks are also said to be 
meticulous and naive, even "childish." 

In the eastern part of vast Jewish Lithuania, masses of 
simple people lived in tiny shtetls in the deep woods. In this 
region, where Chagall grew up, a special Hasidic movement 
emerged that introduced joy and optimism into the gloomy 
mood of orthodox Judaism; it was built on a revival of the 
emotional participation of simple people in religious 
experience. Being a Lithuanian sect, it also stressed learning 
and was called Chabad, a Hebrew acronym for "Wisdom, 
Insight, Knowledge." The founder of this movement, Shneur- 
Zalman of Lyady (1745-1813), was born in Lyozno, Chagall's 
family town. The movement is also called "Lubavitsher," for a 
shtetl in that area where the Shneurson dynasty resided before 
the Revolution. In 1909, the city of Vitebsk had two 
synagogues and sixty prayer houses, most of them Lubavitsher. 

fig. 23 

Mark, Bella, and Ida Chagall in ipi/. 

Chagall's cheerful disposition may have stemmed from Chabad 
Hasidism's cancellation of, or obliviousness to, physical 
existence in the name of spiritual elation. His fictional Jewish 
world is very different from the dour perception of the 
impoverished and degenerated shtetl that permeates much 
Jewish literature of the turn of the century. 

In 1897, the city of Vitebsk had only 34,420 Jews 
(52.4 percent of the population), yet it became an important 
cultural center, producing such Jewish intellectuals as An-ski, 
Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky, Yehuda Pen, and Chagall. The small 
population should not us, for even Vilna, the 
"Jerusalem of Lithuania, " which claimed to be the cultural 
center of Lithuanian religious and secular Jewry, had only 
64,000 Jews at the time. The Jewish population was spread 
throughout Vitebsk Province, in knots of small communities, 
and a constant flux, cultural and economic, took place between 
the Provincial capital, the district towns, and the smaller 
shtetls. Only 20 percent of the Jews of the Province lived in 
Vitebsk proper, and many cultural institutions were located in 
smaller towns such as Lubavitsh (which numbered only 
1,660 Jews), the residence of the dynastic rebbes of the 
Byelorussian Hasidic movement. 

Chagall's ancestral home, Lyozno, located about 
70 kilometers south of the city of Vitebsk, had 1,665 Jews or 
67.3 percent of the population. When Chagall's family moved 
to Vitebsk, they lived, like many provincial newcomers, in the 
outskirts of the capital, and maintained contacts with the town 
of their origin, where part of the family still lived. But theirs 
was not the confined ghetto, far from any railroad and 
oblivious of the changes in the world, as described in Sholem 
Aleichem's "The Town of the Little People." The train passed 
through Vitebsk, bringing to it the spirits of industrialization, 
Russian poetry, and modern culture. 

What, then, was the importance of Vitebsk? Vitebsk, the 
easternmost city of Poland, was taken by Russia in 1772, more 
than twenty years before the partitions of Poland. It was at the 
northeastern corner of the Pale of Settlement, relatively close to 
both Russian capitals. In 1897, it had a considerable Russian 
population (39.9 percent were Russians and Byelorussians as 
opposed to 52.4 percent Jews). It also was home to some 
Russian-speaking Jews, including those expelled from Moscow 
in 1891. It was an important railroad junction, where trains 
passed from Odessa and Kiev to St. Petersburg, and from Riga 
and the West to Moscow. Thus, the two capitals were easily 
accessible. Chagall took advantage of that proximity to escape 
to St. Petersburg, even though he lived there illegally; and 
when Granovskii's Yiddish Theater visited "the people," they 
went to the closest place inhabited by Jews, Vitebsk. In 1920, 
some of the best Russian artists joined Chagall's People's Art 
School in Vitebsk, where they found an eager young Jewish 
population awakening to modern culture and speaking 
Russian. And when Chagall was pushed out of that school, he 
had just a short ride to Moscow. 


Anatolii Lunacharskii, People's Commissar of Education after 
the Bolshevik Revolution, appointed the painter David 
Shterenberg (whom he knew while in exile in Paris) as head of 
IZO, the division of art. As Abram Efros described him: 

Shterenberg was born in Zhitomir (Ukraine), studied in Paris, and 
became an artist in Moscow. He does not speak any one of the three 
languages, hut can make himself clear in all of them. What he lacks, 
he substitutes with interjections and gestures. Listening to his slow 
speech, in which the frowning of forehead and lips, or fuzzy sounds 
and pauses, play the role oj words and concepts — you imagine his 
painting as hesitant and careful. Such are the first canvases of 

Chagall's Cultural Context 

foreigners in Paris who try to hold the brush in the French manner'" 

Chagall was anything but hesitant, but this describes his basic 
situation, too; he was, like Shterenberg, a typical member of 
his generation and could not speak properly in any of the 
languages of his various cultures. 

Chagall grew up in a Yiddish-speaking society, in the 
heartland of the Jewish masses in Russia. We know a great deal 
about Jewish education in that milieu and can imagine his 
early learning experiences. The first texts Chagall learned to 
read were passages from the Hebrew Bible; the oral teaching 
itself and all discussions were conducted in Yiddish. Normally, 
the Biblical text would be read accompanied by a word-for- 
word translation — a word in Hebrew, followed by its 
equivalent in Yiddish; if we were to substitute English for the 
Yiddish, the beginning of the Bible would be taught like this: 
"bereyshis, in the beginning, bora, created, elokim, God," etc. 
Chagall must have studied the Hebrew Chumash (Pentateuch) 
from the customary age of four until the age of thirteen, with 
at least four different teachers. Study would have been 
conducted every day from dawn to dusk in the teacher's heder, 
an all-male, one-class elementary school at the teacher's home; 
and when a child finished studying with one teacher, he would 
go to a higher class at the home of another teacher. The average 
size of a heder in Vitebsk Province was eight children, hence the 
close contact between the only melamed (teacher) and his pupils. 

Teaching focused on reading of the holy texts, not on any 
oral or written expression in the language; Hebrew was not 
intended to be used in real-life communication. Chagall 
presumably advanced to study with a "Gemore-teacher." But 
there is no evidence of any knowledge by Chagall of Aramaic 
or the Talmud. Chagall was deeply impressed by the Biblical 
stories he heard in childhood, but throughout his life he 
showed little knowledge of Hebrew. In several paintings, he 
copied Hebrew texts from the Bible, sometimes with 
mistakes,'"" but never produced any sentence or even 
combination of two Hebrew words of his own. The spelling of 
the Hebrew words (which even a regular Yiddish reader should 
know) that appear in his numerous Yiddish texts is abysmal. 

At the age of thirteen, Chagall was taken by his mother to a 
Russian secondary school.'"' Russian was the language of 
culture, and a springboard for Jews striving to accommodate 
the Russian power structure and to imbibe European culture; 
his parents, though conventionally observant, were apparently 
unafraid of the new secular trends. The males in Chagall's 
family photos wore no hats. Chagall's mother took him to 
Yehuda Pen's school of art, defying what was supposed to be a 
ban on graven images. 

A fellow schoolboy and budding painter introduced Moyshe 
(as he was then called) to the circle that included his future 
wife, Bella Rosenfeld, a daughter of a prosperous merchant and 
Hasid. No doubt, Bella's parents spoke Yiddish at home, but 
the young people with whom she associated tried to speak 
Russian comme il faut, read Russian poetry, performed Russian 
theater, and discussed topics of Russian culture. 

Bella was better educated than Chagall; she even attended 
Moscow University. Between them, they presumably spoke 
mostly Russian, especially after their daughter, Ida, was born. 
But Yiddish was their true language, and the Russian-educated 
Bella wrote her memoirs in New York in 1944 in Yiddish, 
explaining, "A strange thing, I wanted to write. And to write 
only in my stammering mother tongue which I have almost 
not spoken since I left my parents' home. The farther my 
childhood years have moved away from me, the closer they 
suddenly drew to me, as if they themselves were breathing into 
my mouth." 

During their years in New York, though never politically 

committed, the Chagalls were in contact with leftist Yiddishist 
circles. It was with a leftist Yiddish publishing house, the 
Book League of the Jewish People's Fraternal Order, that 
Chagall published Bella's two autobiographical volumes after 
her death. In New York, even when living with his non-Jewish 
companion Virginia Haggard, Marc regularly read Yiddish 
newspapers (he did not know English) and spoke Yiddish with 
Max Lerner, Yosef Opatoshu, and other friends, as well as with 
Jews on the Lower East Side. The largest body of his extant 
correspondence throughout his life was with Yiddish writers, 
often warm, confessional, intimate, and usually both 
nationalistic and critical of the Jews, as many Jewish 
intellectuals were at the time. The numerous texts inscribed on 
his paintings are mostly in Yiddish or Hebrew. 

No doubt, Chagall read Yiddish literature. In his younger 
years, Peretz, Mendele Moykher Sforim, and Sholem Aleichem 
made a strong impact on his world view. He carefully read all 
three volumes of poetry of his compatriot A. Lyesin (Walt), 
which he illustrated in detail (and even understood enough to 
doubt their "literary," i.e. modern, quality). He also read and 
illustrated the poetry of Dovid Hofshteyn, Abraham Sutzkever, 
Elkhonon Vogler, and others. And we have manuscripts of 
Yiddish speeches, articles, and poems in Chagall's own hand, 
some of which he published in the prestigious Tel Aviv-based 
literary quarterly Di goldene keyt and elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, Chagall's Yiddish spelling was atrocious, and 
he kept apologizing for it in letters to his close friend, the 
Yiddish novelist Opatoshu, and to other Yiddish writers and 
editors. Typically, he spelled according to his own, spoken 
Byelorussian Yiddish dialect, confusing "S" with "Sh" and 
"EY" with "OY."'""* His own name, Chagall, apparently resulted 
from this dialect.'"' 

When Chagall arrived in St. Petersburg to study art, the 
rich Jews who had permission to live in the capital spoke 
Russian. Though his teacher Lev Bakst (born in Grodno, in 
western Lithuania) and his first supporter, Maxim Vinaver 
(born in Warsaw), were Jews from the Pale, he probably talked 
to them in Russian. He certainly was influenced by Russian 
culture at the time. Nevertheless, he wrote Russian like a 
Babel character, employing Yiddish syntax and semantics. Still, 
Russian was presumably the language of his informal education 
and reading, and he even tried to write some poems in Russian. 
Late in life, his Russian was reinforced by his Russian-speaking 
Jewish second wife, Valentina Brodskii, who came from 
London to join him in France. 

In France, where Marc spent most of his life and had many 
intellectual friends, he certainly learned to speak French. But, 
just as his Russian had a Yiddish subtext, so did his French 
have a Russian flavor. Virginia Haggard, the daughter of an 
English diplomat in Paris, met him in New York after he had 
spent many years in France. As she tells it, "We were soon 
conversing in French. His Russian accent was warm and 
colorful, and his grammatical errors made me feel less self- 
conscious about my own."'"'^ In a letter to Virginia, Chagall 
wrote, "I would like to write you a whole book, but I write 
French like a Russian pig." Chagall was always immersed in 
painting, not books; his language was the language of 

Center and periphery 

Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk on July 7, 1887 (7/7/87; he 
made much of his lucky number seven throughout his life).'°^ 
The often-repeated theory, that he was actually born in the 
smaller town of Lyozno'"** has recently been discredited by the 
art historian Aleksandra Shatskikh.""' Nevertheless, Chagall's 
friend, the critic Abram Efros referred to him as "the painter 
from Lyozno," and the Israeli President and scholar Zalman 

54 Benjamin Marshal' 

Shazar (himself from Byelorussia) called him "our brother from 
Lyozno and Paris!" As young people, Chagall's parents moved 
from Lyozno to a house owned by his paternal grandfather in a 
suburb of the provincial capital Vitebsk. In the big city, they 
would be nicknamed "Lyezner " ("from Lyozno"); Efros 
recognized the impact that Lyozno images made on Chagall. 
When he came to Paris, Chagall could not mention such a 
small place as Lyozno: he was from Vitebsk, which he 
generalized as the symbol ol the Pale of Settlement and 
provincial Russia, the source ol his fictional world, and the 
target of his nostalgia. But in many ways he really was a 
provincial Lyozno boy; his early images of "Vitebsk" were 
closer to a suburb or a small-town scene"" (photos of the center 
of Vitebsk at the time show a different city altogether), until 
he moved to Vitebsk proper after 1914. Yet, he liked to visit 
Lyozno, where the rest of the family remained, including his 
uncles, aunts, and remarried grandparents, and he did some 
semirealistic paintings there. 

In a Jewish context, embracing a Lyozno ancestry was 
prestigious, for the founder of Chabad Hasidism was born in 
Lyozno. This explains the town's appeal to President Shazar, 
who was himself named Shneur-Zalman Rubashov, after the 
legendary rebbe: Chagall was a secular legend in the wake of a 
religious one! Like other proponents of modern Jewish culture, 
Chagall himself was fond of presenting a strong religious world 
as the roots of his secular Jewishness. 

But the Chagall legend is first and foremost tied to Vitebsk, 
and before him the name was of little consequence. As 
Tugendkhol'd phrased it, the formula "Zion, Babylon, and 
Vilna," indicating the three symbolic centers of Jewish culture 
in history, became "Zion, Babylon, and Vitebsk" '" — this is 
how strong his contemporaries felt about Chagall as the 
symbol of the renaissance of Jewish culture. 

"When he met his future fiancee in Vitebsk, Moyshe Shagal 
(or "Moshka," as his parents called him) was a poor suburban 
boy from the provinces. Bella's family did not quite approve of 
the match, aspiring painter or not. Chagall developed an 
ambition to get into high society, prove himself as a great 
artist, and win his rich and intelligent bride. Paradoxically, he 
succeeded by reverting in his paintings to the images of his 
poor, provincial past. Indeed, he strongly felt the demeaning 
status of his father, who declined from the level of learning set 
by his father, a Hebrew teacher, to a person steeped in drudgery 
and smelling of herring. It was Chagall's image of his 
grandfathers that inspired his paintings with awe. His father's 
lot reflected the impoverishment of Byelorussian Jewry, but 
Chagall's frustration was typical of many aspiring young 
Jewish intellectuals. 

When Chagall came to St. Petersburg, he boldly thrust 
himself into the centers of Jewish high society and Russian art, 
simultaneously presenting the exotic images and values of what 
was perceived as the Jewish past, still surviving in the Pale, 
and of provincial Russia in general. Those images were 
presented from the outside, from the viewpoint of a modern, 
secular Jew, and of St. Petersburg's assimilated Jewish society; 
he depicted the past with a combination of nostalgia and 
admiration, and often as part of the multicultural scene of 
Russian provincial life. Malevich in that period depicted 
Russian peasants, while Chagall conjured up the small town 
and its deep, mysterious beliefs and customs. What he offered 
was not a statement but a world — which appealed to the Jews 
of the capital, some of whom developed a pride in their past 
and in the high values of popular life and folklore at the same 
time they were integrating into Russian Christian culture. 
Thus, Chagall reached people at the center by showing them 
the strange and vital periphery. "' 

Shortly after, ambitious Chagall moved on to the center of 

fig. 24 

Postcard of Vitebsk (Samkov Street). 

Chagall's Cultural Context 55 

European art. In Paris, too, he showed a fictional world to 
viewers preoccupied with form: an exotic world of his invented 
past. His Vitebsk — which came to include churches — 
became emblematic of Russia as well, for in France Chagall was 
considered a Russian painter. His paintings portrayed a 
different cultural world, an "other," which he made vivid to his 
audience at the center. 

In the meantime, he also adopted emblematic images of the 
new domain, Paris, represented by the Eiffel Tower and the 
window of his studio. These emblems would now appear side 
by side with the Jewish and Christian images of Vitebsk. 
When he returned to Russia, he used images from his new 
past, the past of Paris. His authority in Russia was based on his 
fame in Paris and Berlin; the budding Yiddish Theater was 
proud to invite such a famous Jewish artist to design its set. 
Subsequently, the theater itself became famous, and Chagall 
drew on its fame. Chagall felt himself to be among the best in 
the art world; yet he retained the inferiority complex of a 
Jewish boy from the provinces. Witness how in 1952, after 
major solo exhibitions in New York, Paris, and London, he 
wrote with amazement and pride to Opatoshu that he was 
going to marry a woman of the rich Brodskii family from 

On Chagall's evolution 

With time, Chagall's strength became a weakness. Through 
over-repetition, the images from his original fictional world, 
based on his retrospectively constructed childhood, lost much 
of their impact. The vitality of Chagall's Vitebsk derived in 
large part from the surreal, circuslike perspective through 
which he saw it. His strength as an artist came from the 
novelty of his fictional world and originality of his 
deformations, the mysterious oxymorons that permeated it, 
and the tensions and counterpoints between the various strata 
of his paintings. When the tensions were lost, the existential 
comedy became a sentimental decoration. With age, especially 
after the Holocaust, his view of the Jewish world became more 
sentimental, nostalgic, and stereotypical, but less deformed, 
imaginative, and whimsical. The physical Vitebsk was 
destroyed and he couldn't imagine it anymore. Similarly, after 
Bella's death, love too became in his paintings an abstract 

One solution to this impasse was a shift to color, which 
flooded large parts of his paintings, and eventually served as 
the background for figures that were painted or sketched on 
top of it. In his classic period, deformation of color reinforced 
the deformation of his presented world, and vice versa. When 
Chagall's presented world became weakened, sentimental, and 
ornamental, his colors too — though beautiful in their own 
rich texture and light — lost the power they had aquired in 
their interaction and mutual reinforcement with the other 

Another solution was to widen the range of his media to 
include sculpture, porcelain, and stained-glass windows. The 
windows, murals, and ceilings especially had a powerful effect 
on large audiences — with them he repeated, to some extent, 
the feat of his public art in the Yiddish Theater murals. Yet 
most of those works were summations of his oeuvre at its 
current stage, translated into another medium; they were not, 
as the murals had been, a breakthrough in their own right. 

A more substantive solution, encouraged by Ambroise 
Vollard, was the acquisition of new fictional domains from 
major works of literature — Gogol', LaFontaine, A Thousand 
and One Nights — as well as from the circus. The most 
important and comprehensive of those new worlds was the 
Bible. Like the circus, the Bible had been part of Chagall's 
childhood imagination. In France, Chagall incorporated the 

Bible into his painterly fictional world: it appeared at first in 
the Biblical etchings of the 1930s, still strong in Eastern 
European imagery, then in the colorful Biblical illustrations of 
the 1950s and 1960s, made in southern France and influenced 
by its light. Here he could combine the principle of 
composition by color with a public mythology. 

After the Holocaust, there was a public warmth toward the 
all-but-annihilated world of the Jews. The Jewish world of the 
recent past was dead and its images exhausted, but through the 
Bible Chagall could again reclaim something he experienced 
deeply in childhood and which he could, from his peripheral 
perspective, offer the center. In this cynical century, his view of 
the Bible, embodying the highest values to humanity as a 
whole, may be felt as too sweet and simple a message, but if 
anyone could propose it, it was Chagall. 

Chagall's work on the Bible in the 1930s — especially the 
powerful early etchings — were exclusively devoted to the first 
two books of the Pentateuch, which Chagall read in a new 
Yiddish translation."^ These etchings focused not so much on 
the text itself but on basic archetypical scenes, such as "The 
Sacrifice of Isaac," "The Golden Calf," and "Circumcision," 
embellished by AMdrash and transmitted in Jewish folklore and 
in stories for children. When Chagall resumed his work on the 
Bible in the 19SOS, all twenty-four books of the Bible were 
available in Yehoash's Yiddish translation and he drew on all 
parts of the Bible"'; he also went beyond the stock images of 
the Bible from his childhood, and related his works to specific 
textual passages. 

56 Benjamin Hanhav 

Notes to the Introduction 

1. See "Our Goals and Objectives," translated in this book, 
pp. 145-46. 

2. Translated in this book, pp. 173-74. 

Notes to Chapter 1 

3. The timing of the end of Modernism has to do with the 
nature of the social history of ideas more than with some 
inherent evolution of art. It could have appeared in the "zero" 
stage of art, represented by Dada and Suprematism, or in the 
post- World War II decade. 

4. As a deliberate postmodernist, Chagall often liked to 
emphasize pre-Modernist European painting. Although his 
Homage to Apolltnaire (1911-12) was dedicated to the most avant- 
garde leaders of the day (Apollinaire, Canudo, Cendrars, and 
Walden), on the Yiddish manuscript of his autobiography 
written in 1925 (in the YIVO archive), he wrote an inscription 
in Russian — "For Rembrandt, Cezanne, my Mama, my wife" 
— promoting the great masters of art over the fashions of his 
age, and also indicating the importance of his family in the 
formation of his own fictional world. 

5. Werner Haftmann, Marc Chagall (New York: Harry N. 
Abrams, 1973), p. 7. 

6. Grigori Kasovsky, "Chagall and the Jewish Art 
Programme," in Christoph Vitali, ed., Man Chagall: 
The Russian Yean 1906-1922, exh. cat. (Frankfurt: Schirn 
Kunsthalle, 1992). 

7. Chagall's letter to Pen written in Moscow on Sept. 14, 1921, 
was published in Alexandra Shatskich [Aleksandra Shatskikh}, 
"Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich," Shagalovskie dni v 
Vitebske (special issue of Vit'btchi, July 3-5, 1992). 

8. Around 1900, 21,000 Jews lived in St. Petersburg. They were 
mostly rich and influential, or professionals with university 

9. Maxim Vinaver, born in Warsaw in 1862, lived in St. 
Petersburg and died in France in 1926. Vinaver was a founder 
of the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) Party, the largest 
faction in the Duma in 1906, and was its vice chairman. He 
was active in the Society for the Promotion of Culture among 
Jews and headed the Historic-Ethnographic Commission, 
which studied the history of the Jews in Russia. 

10. See his essay "The Artist Marc Chagall," translated in this 
book, pp. 141-43. 

11. A term used to describe a trend in Russian art that spanned 
1910-14 that was adopted by Chagall, Natal'ia Goncharova, 
Mikhail Larionov, Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and others. Most 
of the Neoprimitivists moved on to more radical, avant-garde 
art forms. 

12. Translated in this book, pp. 134-43. 

13. At least, this is how Chagall perceived the events. 
Aleksandra Shatskikh has argued that Chagall wanted to leave 
the school even before Malevich arrived, and that the students 
made a public appeal to keep him there. See Shatskikh, "Marc 
Chagall and Kazimir Malevich." 

14. On the theory of fictional worlds, see Thomas G. Pavel, 
Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 
1986). Also, see my "Fictionality and Fields of Reference: 
Remarks on a Theoretical Framework," Poetics Today, vol. 5 
(1984), no. 2. 

15. "Portrait," Oct. 1913, in Walter Albert, ed.. Selected Writings 
of Blaise Cendrars (New York: New Directions, 1966). 

16. From a speech at Mount Holyoke College, 1943, quoted in 
Susan Compton, Chagall, exh. cat. (London: Royal Academy of 
Arts, 1985), p. 153. 

17. "Chagall 'over the Roofs of the World,'" in Compton, 

18. T S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," in 
The Sacred Wood {\.ondon: Methuen, i960), p. 58. 

19. In Herschel B. Chipp, Peter Selz, and Joshua C. Taylor, 
Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics 
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 
1968), p. 295. 

20. Translated in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, eds. and 
trans., American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (Berkeley 
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), p. 779. 

21. Ibid., p. 776. 

22. Ibid., p. 774. 

23. See my book The Meaning of Yiddish (Berkeley and Los 
Angeles: University of California Press, 1990). 

24. This will be discussed in my book Language in Time of 
Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California 
Press, forthcoming, 1993). 

25. Speech at the Chagall-Fefer Evening, IKOR, New York, 
June 30, 1944; the manuscript of this speech is in the Pesakh 
Novick Archive, YIVO (New York). 

26. Peter Gay, "Sigmund Freud: A German and his 
Discontents," in Freud. Jews and Other Germans: Masters and 
Victims in Modernist Culture (New York: Oxford University 
Press, 1978). 

27. Alfred Wolfenstein, "Das neue Dichtertum der Juden," in 
Gustav Krojanker, ed., Juden in der deutschen Literatur (Berlin: 
Welt-Verlag, 1922). 

28. James Johnson Sweeney quotes a statement by Chagall: 

"I fill up the empty space in my canvas as the structure of my 
picture requires with a body or an object according to my 
humor" (J. J. Sweeney, Marc Chagall, exh. cat. {New York: 
Museum of Modern Art, 1946}, p. 15). We quoted above a 
similar and more elaborated statement from his speech at 
Mount Holyoke College. Of course, Chagall describes here his 
intuitive process of working on the canvas rather than the 
contents or principles of juxtaposition his critical faculty has in 
mind. We must also not forget that he is talking here in a 
period and to an audience interested in formal matters. In 
earlier statements he would stress his nostalgia for "Vitebsk." 
As we explained, both are true at the same time. 

29. The French mathematician Rene Thorn developed such a 
theory to be applied to economics or semiotics of language 
and culture. It offers a series of models representing 
unpredictable breaks, "catastrophes" in an otherwise regular 
process and graph. 

30. See Chipp et. al., Theories of Modern Art, p. 154. 

Notes to Chapter 2 

31. See pp. 134-43- 

32. Aleksandra Shatskikh, in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian 
Years 1906-1922. 

33. A. Vetrov, "On Chagall," Ekran, no. 7 (1921). 

34. Translated in this book, pp. 153-57. 

35. See p. 156. 

Notes 57 

}6. See p. 156. 

37. See pp. 153-57- 

38. Kazimir Malevich, "The Non-Objective World," in 
Chipp et. al., Theories of Modern Art, pp. 341-42. 

39. Admittedly, there is a difficulty with this explanation. At 
that time, Chagall's and the official Soviet spelling of the 
word "Yiddish" did not begin with "I" ("yud") but with "A" 
(the "mute aleph"): Aidish. Chagall used the spelling, twice, 
on the male dancer's shoes in Love on the Stage. That would 
imply the acronym AKT for the theater. Yet, the double 
repetition, the easy distortion of IKS to make IKT, and perhaps 
the memory of the older "Germanizing" spelling, yW/.f/j, may 
explain the trick. 

40. A painting by the New York Jewish artist Rafael Soyer, 
showing unemployed immigrants before a coffee shop with 
items and prices in English, is titled Reading from Left to Right. 
The alien direction of writing in the new country symbolizes 
the broader alienation lelt by Jewish immigrants. 

41. On Chagall's set design tor the Agents, which takes place on 
a train car, we read in Yiddish: FAR REIKHER[ERS] LK III, 
the first two words mean "for smokers" (in Yiddish in the 
Russian train!); the last part is an inversion of the Russian 
label "III CL[ASS}," written in the right direction but in the 
wrong language. 

42. Avram Kampf suggests that a "perspective of sentiment" 
governs the picture: "that which looms large in one's memor}- 
appears huge on the canvas" ("Chagall in the 'Yiddish Theater," 
in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 1906-1922, p. 98). 
Perhaps such a principle helps the writer rationalize Chagall's 
programmatic antirealism, but it does not really work. Can we 
say that any of the actors loomed larger in Chagall's memory 
than his own parents, wife, and child, who are quite small in 
the canvas? In the case of the Introduction, it is thematic 
foregrounding that governs the scale. The topic of his painting, 
the theater, is represented by large figures, while Chagall's own 
world and conceptual perspectives are inserted in the margins 
and interstices of space. Small size makes things no less 
important or less close to the artist's sentiment; on the 
contrary, it betrays his love tor minute details and his personal 
world. We also see this in the small insertions of the world of 
his fictionalized "Vitebsk " under and on the margins of the 
panels representing the tour Arts. 

43. Conversation with Aleksei Kovalev, Director of the 
Restoration Department, State Tret'iakov Gallery, 
July 30, 1992. 

44. See p. 155. 

45. See p. 151. Similarly, Vladimir Maiakovskii, in his radical 
essay "Two Chekhovs," re-read the sentimentalized Chekhov as 
a great and funny master ot language. 

46. A practical joke performed by two boys, called "let us kill a 
goy," consisted ot urinating together and making a cross of the 
two streams (symbolizing the cross on a tombstone). In the 
village milieu, a pig marked the most obvious difference 
between Jews and Gentiles. 

47. See p. 173. 

48. B. Zingerman, 'Russia, Chagall, Mikhoels, and Others," 
Teatr, vol. 2 (1990), p. 37. 

49. According to Aleksandra Shatskikh (Vitali, Marc Chagall: 
The Russian Years 1906-1922, p. 81), the figure was modeled on 
the actor H. S. Krashinski, but there is no proof for this. 

50. The Yiddish reflexive ikh haleve zikh ("I entertain myself," 
from the Russian halovat'sia) is written here in one word, as in 
Russian, yet another example of Chagall's use of Russian 
spelling habits in Yiddish. The repeated ikh (I) at the 
beginning and end of the phrase is a form of folk grammar, 
used emphatically, as in Menakhem-Mendel's speech in Agents. 
Amishai-Maisels's translation of this expression as: "I love you" 
has no base in either Yiddish or Russian. 

51. Teatr is spelled in the Russian manner, accepted by 
Soviet 'Yiddish orthography, as in the canvas Love on the Stage. 
Note also the feminine (or unfinished) form oi yidishe rather 
than yidisher. 

52. See pp. 145-46. 

53. Amishai-Maisels claims that this name refers to Sholem 
Aleichem's hero, thus disrupting the family list and leaving the 
grandmother with no husband. We have no definite source tor 
the name, but Menakhem-Mendel was common in that area, 
after the Hasidic rebbe "Menakhem-Mendel from Vitebsk." 

54. Chagall's paternal grandmother married his maternal 
grandfather when their first spouses died. Those were the 
Lyozno grandparents he knew. 

55. On the leftmost clown's green sock, the Russian inscription 
P verane is penciled in. According to Aleksei Kovalev, 
Director of the Restoration Department, State Tret'iakov 
Gallery, it signifies a green color named after the Italian 
painter Paolo Veronese. 

56. Amishai-Maisels, in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 
1906-1922, p. 112. 

57. Rudolf Arnheim, The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso's 
Guernica (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California 
Press, 1962), p. 26. 

58. Ibid., p. 26. 

59. See p. 150. 

60. See p. 148. 

61. See his later speeches and essays in "Yiddish, especially those 
translated in this book. 

62. Aleksandra Shatskikh, "Marc Chagall and the Jewish 
Chamber Theater, " unpublished manuscript. 

63. For a list of productions, see A. N. Manteytel, "The First 
Theater of the Revolution," Moskva, no. i (1968). 

64. Shatskikh theorizes that Terevsat's move to Moscow, and 
not an explicit expulsion by Malevich, was the cause of 
Chagall's move there. 

65. Chagall's involvement with revolutionary activities and his 
practical work for the theater before the Yiddish Theater 
commission were unknown until recent publications by 
Menteyfel and Shatskikh. Chagall's design is a rare example of 
his participation in propaganda art. 

dG. State Bakhrushin Museum, Moscow, Fond. 584, 

files 20, 21, 87. 

67. The early announcements list Chagall as the designer of all 
three plays, while later ones mention Al'tman. 

68. The papers of the commission were kept in CGALI (Central 
State Archive for Literature and Art), Moscow, Fond. 2307, 
Opis' I, Unit 81: "Acts of Documentary Control of the 
Financial-Economic Activity of the Liquidation Commission of 
the Moscow State "Viddish Theater" (1950, GG pp.); and Units 
82-83: "Acts and Powers of Attorney for the Transfer and 

58 Benjamin Harshav 

Acceptance of Property of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater" 
(1950; vol. I, 206 pp., vol. 2, 179 pp.). In 1976, however, these 
files were extracted from the archive and sent to vydehny v 
makidati/ru (scrap paper). Unit 3 is also missing. According to 
some sources, they must be preserved somewhere, perhaps by 
the KGB (the fate of similar files sent as "scrap paper"). 

69. Chaim Beyder, "Marc Chagall Returned to Russia," 
unpublished manuscript. 

70. Alexei P. Kovaliev [Aleksei P. Kovalev], "Report on the 
Restoration of the Murals for the Jewish Kamerny Theatre in 
Moscow," in Vitali, Marc Chagall: The Russian Years 1906-1922, 
p. 134. 

Notes to Chapter 3 

71. Leningradskaia krasnaia gazeta, Aug. 30, 1926. 

72. "Das jiidische Theater in Moskau," in Das Moskauer jiidische 
akademische Theater (The Moscow Yiddish Academic Theater) 
(Berlin: Die Schmiede, 1928), pp. 17-21. 

73. In Mit Sch lender mid Harfe: Theaterkritiken aus drei 
Jahrzehnten (Berlin: Hensche Iverlag, 1981). 

74. Kultiir-Lige: A sakh hakl (The Culture League: 
A stocktaking) (Kiev, Nov. 1919), pp. 1-3. 

75. That may be an exaggeration for a Jew born in Riga; 
Granovskii didn't talk much anyway. 

76. Mikhoels, "In our Studio," in Dos yidishe kamer teatr 
(The Yiddish Chamber Theater) (Petrograd: Jewish Theater 
Society, 1919), p. 22. 

77. Ibid. 

78. Ibid. 

79. Ibid., p. 17. 

80. Ibid., p. 24. 

81. P. A. Markov, The Soviet Theatre (New York: G. P. Putnam's 
Sons, 193s), pp. 165-66. 

82. The degree to which the Jewish tradition was merged with 
the so-called "internationalism" and political engagement can 
be seen, for example, in the program of the spectacle called 
"Carnival of Jewish Comedians." According to a program of 
May 12, 1923, it included: 

Thieves' songs from Odessa and Warsaw; a Negro performance ''Java 
Celebes"; the Jewish King Lear in Pensa; Klezmer songs; three loves — 
Negro, American, Hasidic; street songs from Vilna; Hasidic songs and 
dances; "Matchmaking" — an unusual operetta; American songs in 
Jewish style; six Jewish acrobats; the Marseillaise. 

What the Jewish comedians knew of "Negro love" and "Java 
Celebes" is hard to imagine; and the Marseillaise is a rather 
comic end to a Jewish folk carnival. 

83. S. Mikhoels, "Mikhoels Vofsi On the Theater," interview, 
Literarishe hleter, April 27, 1928. 

84. Ibid. 

85. Andre van Gyseghem, Theatre in Soviet Russia (London: 
Faber and Faber, 1943), p. 174. 

86. In the "war of the languages," Ben-Gurion came down on 
the side of the Hebrew HaBima rather than this Yiddish 
"leftist" acting. 

87. Max Osborn, "Marc Chagall," Zhar-ptitsa, no. 11 (1923), 
p. 13. 

88. Kultur-Lige's programmatic brochure exemplifies the 
conflict. It attacks the parallel Hebrew school organization 
Tarbut as being "Zionist-Rabbinical" and promoting Eretz- 
Israel, "A land where Jews don't live they call our land, a 
language Jews don't speak they call our language." 

89. In The New York Times, Dec. 14, 1926, critic J. Brooks 
Atkinson wrote, "The effect is astonishing, as unreal as the 
mystic legend of the play." 

90. Das Moskauer jiidische akademische Theater. 

91. Faina Burko, The Soviet Yiddish Theatre in the Twenties 
(Ph.D. diss.. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1978), 
p. 81. 

92. Yosef Schein, Arum moskver yidishn teater (Around the 
Moscow Yiddish Theater) (Paris: Lcs editions polyglottes, 

93. See p. 151. 

Notes to Chapter 4 

94. Chagall began My Life just before he left Russia in 1922, 
probably for publication there, and finished it in Berlin in 
1923. Written in Russian (not his native tongue), it reinforces 
the public image the famous painter had by then acquired. Its 
writing is colorful (e.g., "Lenin turned it [Russia} upside down 
the way I turn my pictures"), and provides occasional 
explanations of the oddities in his paintings, but the text is 
problematic. As Andre Salmon indicated in the French edition, 
it was written in an impossible and untranslatable Russian. 
(The Berlin publisher Cassirer addressed this problem by 
publishing the drawings oi My Life without the text.) Clearly, 
it conveyed Chagall's associative, disheveled Yiddish in Russian 
words. Bella Chagall, a newcomer to France, translated the text 
into French with the aid of her French teacher; it was then 
patched up again and published only in 1932, by which time 
many specific details were lost or distorted (other details were 
added or changed). The English and German editions were 
translated from that French version and contain many puzzling 
things. For example, one finds in the English version: 
"However, to live in Petersburg, one needs not only money, but 
also a special authorization. I am a Jew. And the czar had set 
aside a certain residential zone in which the Jews were obliged 
to stay." Surely, Chagall meant the Pale of Settlement, 
hundreds of kilometers from the capital. Elsewhere, the 
changes may reflect Bella's censorship or "adaptation" for a 
non-Jewish audience. For example, Chagall's plea to his 
presumed ancestor, the synagogue painter Hayim Segal, to 
come out of the grave and "blow into me, my bearded 
grandfather, a few drops o{ Jewish truth!" (i.e., teach me the 
Jewish tradition of folk art) in the English edition became, 
"distill in me one or two drops oi eternal truth." 

The Russian original, however, was translated into Yiddish 
in 1924 by two major Yiddish Expressionist writers who knew 
both Russian and Yiddish well, Peretz Markish and Oyzer 
Varshavsky; both were friends of Chagall, who illustrated the 
two journals they edited in Paris, where they all resided at the 
time. Chagall edited the translation and published it himself in 
his own name in several Yiddish journals around the globe, 
notably in the prestigious literary journals Literarishe bleter 
(Warsaw) and Di Tsukunft (New York); Chagall's memoirs 
appeared in several installments in Tsukunft in 1925, seven years 
before the French edition. Chagall intended to publish the 
Yiddish autobiography in book form before any other language 
(as he wrote to the New York literary critic Sh. Nigger), but it 
never materialized. The manuscript, including corrections, is 
preserved in the YIVO archives (New York). See the discussion 
of this issue by the YIVO Librarian, Dina Abramovitsh, in 

Noses I 59 

"Marc Chagall's Memoirs of his Youth in Tsukunft and his 
Letters to A. Lyesin," Tsukunft, vol. 95 (1988), nos. 5-8. 

95. Unfortunately, Chagall criticism and biographies are 
written mostly by authors, Jews and non-Jews, who no longer 
know the languages and situations of that lost world; mistakes 
in reading the Yiddish and Hebrew texts and subtexts abound. 

96. See Chagall's "Leaves from My Notebook," translated in 
this book, pp. 173-74. 

97. We have detailed statistics from the census of 1897. The 
figures here are based on the relevant entries in the Russian 
Evreiskaia entsiklopediia (Jewish encyclopedia) (St. Petersburg: 
Brockhaus and Ephron, 1915), and Ch. Shmeruk's dissertation 

98. Shml was derived from the Polish mjasteczko, small city 
(from rnjasto, city), then adopted in Russian as mestechko. In 
many English books, including autobiographies and 
translations, "shtetl" is misleadingly translated as "village." In 
some English titles given to Chagall's paintings, we find the 
same confusion. 

99. In a lecture in New York in 1943, praising what the 
Russian Revolution did for the Jews, Chagall told how, as a 
child, he would hide under the bed when he saw & gorodovoy 
through the window. 

100. On the philosopher Levinas and other Litvak Jewish 
intellectuals in France, see Judith Friedlander, Vilna on the Seine 
(New Haven and London: Yale University Press). 

loi. Abram Efros, Prof Hi (Profiles) (Moscow: Federatsiia, 1930). 

102. An example is eretz (land) with a Yiddish ayin instead of 
the Hebrew alef, on the gate of his The Cemetery Gates (1917). 

103. We don't know how long he attended the Russian school; 
he was not a great student and had to repeat at least one grade. 

104. Chagall was uncertain about his dialectal spelling and 
changed every ey into oy; for example: he writes hoym (home) 
instead oiheym, and even Roynhart for [Max} Reinhardt. This is 
how his son-in-law Franz Meyer and all who followed him 
invented a new Jewish name for his beloved uncle, spelled in 
German: Neuch (which in Lithuanian Yiddish is pronounced 
Neyakh) instead of Noah. 

105. See Appendix A, "Why Marc Chagall?" p. 61. 

106. Virginia Haggard, My Life with Marc Chagall (New York: 
Donald I. Fine, 1986), p. 14. 

107. Late in life, he hinted that his father may have registered 
his birth two or three years earlier than the actual date, to 
protect him from being conscripted into the army or, according 
to Bella, to protect his younger brother David (the exemption 
was based on a considerable distance in age between the two). 
That would take two or three years off his old age! However, 
his son-in-law Franz Meyer demonstrated that this was 
implausible, for Chagall's younger sister was born in 1889 and 
they were not twins. See Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Work 
(New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1963), p. 11. 

108. Also called in Russian Lioznii, in Yiddish Lyezne, and in 
Polish Lozniany. 

109. Shatskikh found that Vitebsk did indeed burn down on 
August 7, 1887 ijljl^j), confirming Chagall's story that, when 
his mother gave birth, both mother and baby had to be 
dragged to the other side of town — a story that became the 
source of his frightening flaming-red colors. See her "When 
and Where was Marc Chagall Born?" in Vitali, Marc Chagall: 
The Russian Years ipo6-ip22. 

60 Benjamin Harshav 

iio. In a letter to Opatoshu, he wrote that he felt at home in 
Vitebsk only in "my own few streets," and in another, "Do I 
know Russia? I know just a few streets in Vitebsk, and some of 
Petersburg and Moscow." 

111. See p. 143. 

112. Chagall reached some of the highest levels of St. 
Petersburg Jewish intelligentsia. And a strange sight he must 
have been! His friend of those years, Aleksandr Romm, an 
aspiring artist and son of a St. Petersburg surgeon (who later 
quarreled with Chagall in Vitebsk and is, admittedly, a hostile 
though admiring witness) described "Moysey" as seen with the 
eyes of his social class: "A provincial with bad manners, a not 
quite correct Russian language, and rumpled clothes." In 
Aleksandr Romm, "Marc Chagall," unpublished manuscript. 

113. He made the same boast in a letter to the Yiddish writer 
and activist Daniel Charney. 

114. In 1928, his friend Opatoshu sent him the first two books 
of the Pentateuch in the spectacular, poetic translation by the 
American Yiddish poet Yehoash — and Yiddish was a language 
Chagall truly understood. Chagall thanked him profusely and 
explained how he needed it for his work for Ambroise Vollard. 

115. In the catalogue of the Musee national message biblique 
Marc Chagall, Nice, we find: a) gouaches and drawings of 
1930-32: 23 from Genesis, 14 Exodus, i (nonspecific) from each, 
Numbers and Joshua; b) engravings of 1931—34: 35 Genesis, 14 
Exodus; while the engravings of 1952— 56 include works from 
Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, 
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezechiel. The lithographs of 
1952-68 are again mostly from his beloved Pentateuch, as well 
as the "simple" and popular books of Ruth and Esther. 

Appendix A 

Why Marc Chagall? 

The artist claimed that his family's name was Segal and that 
his father changed it to Shagal. How did it happen? Why 
should a simple herring trader change his name? And was it 
easy to change a name in tsarist Russia? 

The name Segal (accented on the first syllable, Segal) is 
spelled SGL in Hebrew, that is, with no written vowels 
(because it is an acronym for the Hebrew designation Sgan 
Levia ["Attendant to Levites"]). But Lithuanian Yiddish 
speakers confused "S" and "Sh," never knowing which to use 
where. In western Lithuania, every "Sh" was pronounced "S," 
while in eastern Byelorussia, the contrary was true: people said 
tshvantshik instead oi tsvantsik (twenty), zhihn instead o( zibn 
(seven); Chagall himself, in his published Yiddish 
autobiography, called his hometown Lyezhne instead of Lyezne 
(Lyozno). As Marvin Herzog, the specialist on Yiddish 
dialectology, tells me, this tendency was especially strong in 
eastern Byelorussia. (See the recordings of pronounciation in 
Mohilev, Lyozno, Vitebsk, and the former Vitebsk Gubernaia, 
in Mordekhai Venger, "Vegn Yidishe dialektn," in Tsaytshrift, 
vol. I [1926}, and vols. 2-3 [1928}. Chagall himself rhymed "S" 
and "Sh" in his Yiddish poems.) 

Thus the name SGL was pronounced ShGL. Shifting the 
accent to the last syllable, it became Shagal. This stress on the 
last syllable and the resulting vowel pattern is used in other 
family names made of Hebrew acronyms: ShaBaD, ChaBaD, 
ShaDaL, YaLaG (spelled ShBD, ChBD, etc.); the person who 
registered the name in Russian must have been proud of the 
fact that it was an honorable, Hebrew name. It was probably 
Marc's paternal grandfather, a Hebrew teacher, who did so. It 
could not have been Marc's father, for Uncle Zusia in Lyozno 
was also a Shagal, as the artist indicated in the painting Uncle's 
Shop in Lyozno (1914-15), in which his uncle's barbershop is 
depicted with a sign, in Russian, bearing that name. 

Later, when Chagall moved from writing in Cyrillic to 
Latin letters, he Frenchified the spelling to Chagall. (One 
wonders if his fame would have been the same had he been 
called Segal, rather than the interesting, ultimately stressed, 
and French-sounding Chagall?) Yet he still claimed that 
Hayim Segal, the eighteenth-century painter of the Mohilev 
Synagogue, was his great-grandfather (this is possible, for 
Lyozno was in Mohilev Province). Indeed, in the two versions 
oiThe Pinch of Snuff {i<)iz), he included, inside the book read by 
the pious Jew, in Hebrew, SGL MShH (read as Segal Moyshe, 
in roll-call order). The same name, MShH SGL, is inserted in 
the Biblical quotations in The Red Jew (also known as Jew in 
Bright Red; 1915) and The Green Jew (1914). 

"Marc" seems easy, but it is not clear when exactly he 
acquired it. His Jewish name was "Moyshe"; his parents 
Russified it in daily use, as they did with the names of most of 
their children, and called him "Moshka." In his Yiddish 
autobiography, he refers to himself in Vitebsk as "Moshke from 
Pokrove Street," yet his "aristocratic" friend (as Chagall 
dubbed him) called him "Marc." His friends in St. Petersburg 
used his full name in Russian — without the childish 
diminutive Moysey — but in France he became Marc. The 
name came perhaps in imitation of the Jewish sculptor Marc 
Antokolski from Vilna, who lived in St. Petersburg and was 
famous in Russia in the previous generation. In his Paris years, 
Chagall often did not sign his work at all, or signed without 
his first name; his Russian paintings are signed in Russian or, 
later, in French. Yet, he sometimes returned to signing MShH 
SGL (as in the The Red Jew and The Pinch of Snuff). 

Appendixes I 61 

Appendix B 

Misinterpretations of the murals 

Many critics and scholars have commented on Chagall's murals 
for the Yiddish Theater. The problems the works pose are not 
easy to resolve, for, on the one hand, they seem to contain 
allusions to cultural stereotypes and to Chagall's biography, 
fictional world, and paintings, while, on the other, it is easy to 
fall into the trap of allegorizing, reading the paintings simply 
as an encoded personal message. No doubt, much of the 
contemporary evidence is lost, and the identities of various 
actors presumably represented in the Introduction cannot be 
established. It is not even clear that, in fact, Chagall 
represented particular persons in all cases; the figures are quite 
schematized, and critics differ over even the identification of 
Mikhoels (presumably painted two or three times in the 

The most inventive interpretation so far has been written 
by Ziva Amishai-Maisels ("Chagall's Murals for the State 
Jewish Chamber Theatre," in Christoph Vitali, ed.. Marc 
Chagall: The Russian Years 1906—1922 [Frankfurt: Schirn 
Kunsthalle, 1991}, pp. 107-27). The wide availability of that 
essay, however, requires a critical response. To this reader, 
Amishai-Maisels's daring interpretations are farfetched and 
based on absurd logical leaps, faulty Yiddish, and an 
assumption that Chagall was a painter with a precisely encoded 
message who could inscribe all his personal grudges in the 
paintings without any of his peers in the theater noticing it. 
The basic assumption — that Chagall "used the facade of 
poetic images which he refused to explain to hide secret 
messages" — is questionable. The claim that "this approach 
derived from his Jewish upbringing which had taught him to 
interpret the Bible on four levels" — i.e., that in the heder he 
could have studied the difficult kabbalistic theory of four levels 
of meaning — ■ is highly doubtful, as is the possibility of 
identifying four levels of meaning in each Chagallian image. 

That author also claims that Chagall "believed that anyone 
interested in his work would study it closely, and that as long 
as the in-group he worked with — in this case, the director 
and the actors — were aware of the meanings he has added, 
that was enough" (p. no). Yet soon after, she claims that 
Chagall attacked Granovskii in this very painting: "Chagall 
indicates his scorn for Granovsky's scant knowledge of Jewish 
traditions" (p. 113). Did Granovskii understand and condone 
the attack? Why do we find no trace of these interpretations in 
the memoirs of Efros, who lectured about the paintings in the 
theater itselP 

Let us analyze several specific claims of this interpretation. 
In her reading of the Introduction, through some leaps of logic, 
the author identifies the green Chagallian animal at the left as 
"Malevich's cow," because in 1913 Kazimir Malevich made a 
painting with a cow and a violin (along with some other 
things, we may add). But Malevich's cow was a postcard brown 
cow (as on Swiss chocolate bars), while this animal is green, 
which is interpreted thus: "Moreover, the color indicates that 
Malevich's new style is a 'griner,' an inexperienced style which 
has not stood the test of time" (p. iii). 

Green, however, was one of Chagall's favorite colors: the 
face oiThe Green Jew (1914) has certainly withstood "the test of 
time"; the green-clad Jew in The Spoonful of Milk (1912), the 
green face of Chagall himself in / and the Village (1911), and the 
green face of the fiddler in the panel Music from the Yiddish 
Theater suite are other examples; and in his first theater 
production, for the Comedians' Resting Place in St. 
Petersburg, Chagall painted the faces of all the actors green. 
But Amishai-Maisels offers another explanation for the green 
cow as well: "In the mural, Malevich's cow is ironically painted 

green and set in the air in memory of the criticism launched 
against the works with which Chagall had decorated Vitebsk: 
'Why is the cow green and why is the horse flying in the sky?' 
Thus Malevich is taken to task for mocking the irrationality of 
Chagall's art" (p. no). Is the cow then Malevich's or Chagall's? 
Is the green Malevich's or Chagall's? And who was mocking 

On the page in My Life to which we are directed, Chagall is 
unequivocal about it: "All the house-painters ... as well as 
their apprentices, began to copy my cows and my horses. . . . 
My multicolored animals swung back and forth, swollen with 
revolution. The workers marched forward singing the 
International. . . . Their Communist leaders appeared to be less 
satisfied^:] Why is the cow green and why is the horse flying in 
the sky?" (Chagall, My Life (New York: Orion Press, i960}, 

P- 139)- 

Did the Communist leaders represent Malevich? And if so, 
did they mock Malevich's cow, or, rather, Chagall's unrealistic 
color? All this overinterpretation is accompanied by a 
declaration that "these fantastic images become understandable 
through an analysis of the idioms Chagall used and a 
knowledge of his experiences and the art of those involved in 
them" (p. no). Is the whole theater mural really a manifesto 
against Malevich's Suprematism — "a 'griner,' an 
inexperienced style"? The figure welcoming the cow is 
described as "a Jewish folk musician/artist with a stringless 
broken violin," yet in the next sentence he becomes a peasant; a 
few lines later, the peasant is transformed into El Lissitzky! 
This is supported by an invented Yiddish: the fiddler does a 
split, and our author fantasizes that an acrobatic "split" in 
Yiddish is shpaltung, therefore indicating the "rift in the 
Vitebsk school." But there is no such word in Yiddish; in 
Chagall's time, there probably was no word in Yiddish for such 
coarse acrobatics, though later it was called a shpagat. 

That Malevich and Lissitzky should become heroes of 
Chagall's Introduction is at least strange; most arguments 
supporting it are as absurd as the above. Amishai-Maisels 
associates the fiddler on the right with Lissitzky, but the 
identification of this fiddler as Mikhoels (by Franz Meyer and 
Aleksandra Shatskikh) is more logical and in accord with 
Chagall's stories about his influence on Mikhoels. This can be 
supported by a more important Yiddish expression: shpiln 
means both to play music and to act in a play, hence playing 
the fiddle is an obvious metaphor for acting. Thus, the green 
cow, representing Chagall's unrealistic art (just executed in 
Vitebsk), charges into the situation, and Mikhoels, not 
knowing how to play {i.e., perform a play}, comes to Chagall 
for advice. 

In her interpretation of the murals, the same author 
misreads the Yiddish inscription IKTIKT as Mkit; from this, 
she extrapolates that it "suggest[s} the name 'Mikita,' a 
Ukrainian version of 'Nikita,' which was used by Jews in 
Vitebsk to represent the typical non-Jew" (p. 113). Where is the 
evidence? Why would the northernmost city in Byelorussia use 
a Ukrainian name? (Chagall's Slavic language was Russian, in 
which the name is pronounced Nikita.) And why would this 
name, rather than Ivan, represent the "non-Jew"? And yet, 
based on this invented word, a figure "Mikita" is found in the 
painting and becomes the focus of a whole Christian-Jewish 
antagonism, including a criticism of Granovskii himselfl 

Amishai-Maisels writes, "Granovsky has no arms. He is 
another 'kalike,' even worse off than Lissitzky. But being 
without hands entirely not only means that he is unsuccessful, 
but that he is a 'goylem,' a dummy. His lack of hands makes 
him unable to accept the gift of Chagall's talent, proffered to 
him as a palette, and the way he turns away and kicks back at 
Chagall reflects his disdain" (p. 113). True, a kalike (cripple. 

62 Bcnjcimni Harshap 

usually crippled in one or both legs) is also a metaphor for a 
person who is bad at his job; but why should Granovskii be 
singled out, when Efros, Mikhoels, and others also lack arms or 
limbs, typical of the Chagallian manner? In Chapter 2, we 
noted that the inscription LAGASh (the inverted ShAGAL) on 
the Introdiictiiin is without a fourth letter (an ideogram of a 
painter is substituted), and what is left reads LA.G . . . Sh — 
yet Amishai-Maisels interpolates an "I," and invents a Yiddish 
word lagish (it should be logish), "suggesting that the 
'irrational' Chagall is actually logical" (p. 113). 

On such himrshe jislekh (Yiddish lor "chicken legs") stands 
the whole edifice of the author's interpretation of the 
Introduction. Most of its Yiddish translations are simply wrong. 
It is not true that "the Yiddish term lor a sick cow " is ilyhhitk, 
or that "one of the names for [a domestic animal} is a 'nshome,' 
a soul. " Hence neither is it true that any domestic animal on 
Chagall's paintings represents a ghost, a dybbnk, or that 
"in Yiddish one speaks of 'a green and yellow melancholy' " 
and so on. 

The most amazing conjecture is that Chagall painted the 
play The Dybhiik into his Yiddish Theater murals. Any leap of 
logic seems legitimate to prove this argument. Thus, the boy 
hovering above the Suprematist clouds in the panel AIz/j/V is 
described as a "flying figure " and linked to another panel: "Set 
in the same area as the 'nshome' in the previous panel, she 
[sic!] suggests the bride who ascends to meet her beloved, 
leaving the black clouds behind. " (Note the pronoun "she" 
referring to the boy — in Hebrew, a "flying figure" is 
feminine.) Indeed, in the upper-left corner of another panel. 
Dance — not at all in the same area as the boy — a corner of an 
animal is seen, but an animal is not a nshome (soul), and a soul 
is not yet a dybbiik\ and if being pale makes it a dybbuk, why 
isn't the Jew blowing a shofar in the upper-right corner a 
dybbiik too? And how are the two different figures in different 
panels related? And how are all the visiting dybbiiks related to 
the context of the paintings in which they appear? 

An-ski's play Between Two Worlds was published in 1919 in 
Vilna, which was then separated from Moscow by a war zone. 
Even if the book had arrived in Moscow and Chagall had read 
it, it became important — and was renamed The Dybbnk — 
only when the Moscow Hebrew Theater, HaBima, rehearsed it 
in 1921, after the murals were finished. Contrary to Amishai- 
Maisels's claim, in Chagall's frieze The Wedding Table there is no 
trace of The Dybbi/k's ominous mood — it is simply the happy 
double wedding from Mazel Tov, one play in the Sholem 
Aleichem Evening. 

The main problem with conflating Chagall's murals with 
The Dybbi/k is that at the time there was a war to the death 
between Hebrew and Yiddish in Soviet Russia; the leaders of 
Yiddish culture tried to close the Hebrew theater; and the war 
ended in a ban on the Hebrew language and the liquidation of 
all Hebrew writers and activists. Chagall himself wrote, "I was 
invited to do the stage for The Dybbnk in HaBima. I didn't 
know what to do. Those two theaters were at war with each 
other. But I couldn't not go to HaBima where the actors didn't 
act but prayed and, poor souls, still idolized Stanislavskii's 
theater" (Marc Chagall, "My "Work in the Moscow Yiddish 
Theater," translated in this book, pp. 149-50). And Efros wrote 
about HaBima at that time, "It was supported by an amazing 
amalgam of Zionists, the Rabbinate, parts of the Communist 
Party, and those liberal anti-Semites who considered the 
language of the Bible the only thing bearable about the Jews" 
(Abram Efros, "The Artists of Granovskii's Theater," translated 
in this book, pp. 153-57). 

It is possible that the HaBima director, Vakhtangov, 
considered Chagall as a painter for The Dybbnk, though Chagall 
himself makes it clear that he could not accept the Stanislavskii 

line. (Chagall told this story only after HaBima and The 
Dybb//k became famous.) Yet, with such clearly stated attitudes 
in the management of the Yiddish Theater, it is unlikely that 
Chagall would include The Dybbnk in his murals — and there 
is no proof for it. 

Appendixes I 63 

fig. 25 

Chagall painting Bella in Green ( ip^4-j^). 

64 Benjamin Harshav 


timptta and gouaiht an it/iriu 


( III Vi X joS K iiuha) 

Sun Trtl'ukof CaJ/rry. Mail 


Love on the Stage 


Tempera and gouache on canvas 

284.2 X 249.6 cm 

(in Va X p8 '/, inches) 

State Tret'iakov Gallery. Moscow 





Thtt Wedding Table 

Sum Tnl'mioi' CjUit). "11*" 



Tempera and gouache on canvas 

212.4 X lOj.^cm 

(8^ Vs X 40 V4 inches) 

State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow 




Tempera and gouache on canvas 

21}. ■/ X 108 cm 

(84'/s X 42 'A inches) 

Stale Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow 




Tempera and gouache on canvas 

212.J X lO/.j cm 

(S^'A X 42'/4 inches) 

State Tret iakov Gallery. Moscow 



Tempera and gouache on canvas 

21^.9 X 81. j cm 

(8^ X 32 inches) 

Stale Tret'iakov Gallery. Moscow 


Study for 
Introduction to the 
Jewish Theoter 


Pencil, ink, gouache, and watercolor on 

paper, mounted on hoard 

ij.} X 4p cm 

(6 V4 X ip 'A inches) 

Ai usee national d'art moderne, 

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 

/MttTC cAa^»Jic if/^ 




Study for the Jev/ish 


Pencil and watercolor on paper {verso) 

11.^ X 26.8 cm 

(4 'A X 10 'A inches) 

Aluse'e national d'art moderne, 

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 


1; \ 



The Green Violinist 

ca. 1^20 

Pencil and waternlor on paper 

32 X 22 an 

(12 Vs X 8Vs inches) 

Collection Ida Chagall. Paris 




The Green Violinist 
(study for Musicj 


Pencil, gouache, and watercotor 
on brown paper 
24.7 X /J.J cm 
(9Y4 X s'A inches) 
Wi/see national d'art moderne. 
I aitre Georges Pompidou, Paris 


Study for Dance 

Ink and watenolor on paper 
24.1 X 12. J cm 
(p 'A X ^ inches) 
Collection Ida Chagall. Paris 

' jm ■ 1 


y f 



Study for Dance 


Pencil and ink on paper 

24.8 X I}. 4 cm 

(pV4 X S 'A inches) 

Co/lection Ida Chagall, Paris 


Study for Literature 


Pencil, ink, and gouache on paper (recto) 

26.8 X 11.^ cm 

(10 'A X 4 'A inches) 

Mime national d'art moderne. 

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 

^«S«ocC /^(O 

C-l^O- «\ a-H_ 


Set design for Mazel Tov 


Pencil and gouache on brown paper 

on board 


(iS'U X 2S inches) 

Collection Ida Chagall. Paris 




Set design for Mazel Tov 


Pencil and watercolor on paper 

2S.S x}4.scm 

( 10 X 14 inches) 

Collection Ida Chagall. Paris 


Set design for It's a Lie 


Pencil and gouache on paper 
22.^ X }0 cm 
( 8 '/s X II % inches) 
Collection Ida Chagall. Paris 









li^^ ..... 


Costume design for 



Pencil and watercolor on paper 

2j X 2jcm 

( 10 Vs xloVs inches) 

Collection Ida Chagall, Paris 


Man >vith Long Nose 

(costume design for Sholem 
Aleichem Evening J 


Pencil and watercolor on paper 

2y X ip.^ cm 

(lO Vs X jVs inches) 

Collection Ida Chagall, Pans 



Woman with Child 

(cost unit: design for Sholem 

Aleichem Evening ) 


Pencil and gouache on paper 

2j.y X20.}cm 

(lO Vs X 8 inches) 

Collection Ida Chagall. Paris 


Portrait of the Artist's 

Sister Aniuto 


Oil on canvas 

p2.} X jo-i cm 

{i6 '4 X 2J Vs inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 






^HQj^ ^Mff^ ^IHMl 















^m M 





^^^^^^B ,^^^H|HB^^^' " 



^^HBL '"^-"^Ji 






The Soldier Drinks 

1911 - 12 

Oil on canvas 
log. I X p4.^cm 

(43 X j/'/, inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 



Paris Through the Window 


Oil on canvas 

ijS-S X 141.4 cm 

fjj /4 X jj- % inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 

Gift, Solomon R. Guggenheim j/.4j8 


The Flying Carriage 


Oil on canvas 

106. y X 120.1cm 

(42 X 47 'A inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 



ca. 1914 

Gnuache and pencil on cream 

wove paper 

28.S X 24.1cm 

(11 'A X p Vi inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 

Gift. Solomon R. Guggenheim 41.436 




ca. ipi8 

Gouache, india ink, and 

pencil on paper 

JI.7 X 22.^ cm 

(12 Vz X 8 Vs niches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 

Gift. Solomon R. Guggenheim 41,440 



The Dream 


Gouache, pencil, ink. and bronze 

paint on paper 

^2.1 X 4S-2 cm 

(12V4 X 1/ inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 

Gift. Solomon R. Guggenheim 41.447 



In the Sno>v 

1922 lea. ipjo 

Gouache and ink on paper 

2^.6 X }i. 4 cm 

(9 Va X 12 Vs inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 

Gift. Solomon R. Guggenheim 4i.4Si 


Supplementary sheet to 

Mein Leben ("My LifeJ, io I no 

Etching and drypoint on paper 

Paper. 44.1 x }4.pcm 

(17 Vs X /J V4 inches); 

plate: 44.$ x ^4.9 cm 

(loVs X 8 Vs inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum iS.j^j 

> '.., ■ 4'.' ' . .♦ 


Green Violinist 


Oil on canvas 
Ip8 X 108.6 an 

(78 X 42 ¥4 inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 

Gift. Solomon R. Guggenheim 57.446 


I and the Village 

ca. 192^ - 24 ? 

Gouache, watenolor, and 

pencil on paper 

SP X }0 cm 

f/j Vs X II Vs inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Mmeuyn, 

Gift. Solomon R. Guggenheim 41.4^$ 



- ^ - ^XC ChaCjoXt 

^ JcJamx Z/'-^^a /T^^ Jy^/>-'^^'-y/f^^t^^_ 


The Soldier Drinks 

M. ip2j - 24 

Gouache on paper 

(fj.j X 48.^ cm 

(2^ X 19 inches) 

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 

Gift, Solomon R. Guggenheim 41.4S9 

JtalC CJn.;:/J'- 

Texts and Documents 

Edited by Benjamin Harshav 

Translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav 

The Art of Marc Chagall 

This first book on Marc Chagall, written in Russian by Abram Efros 
and lakov Tugendhol'd, was published in Moscow by Helicon in ipi8. 
It includes two contributions by Efros and one by Tugendhol'd as well 
as thirty reproductions of the artists paintings and graphics. The book 
bears the inscription, "composed with the help of the Circle for J eicish 
National Aesthetics 'Schomir. 

The Emperor's Clothes Abram Efros 

Here is a book about an artist — young but already famous — 
perhaps the most brilliant of our hommes d'aujourd'hui, but one 
who has experienced a hard lot: to be recognized without 
being understood. Marc Chagall fell under the wheel of one 
of those quiet artistic revolutions that seem to occur unnoticed 
and coincidentally, but whose victims include the most 
unusual talents. 

What happened? What happened is the deepest rupture, 
still unnoticed and unaccounted for, of the most solid 
relationships between traditional antagonists — the artist and 
the masses. Oh, the roles have changed in an amazing way! 
The imperially conservative masses — Her Highness the 
Masses, the masses, slandered and adored, whom all 
revolutionaries of art have cursed and yet tried to captivate; 
the masses surrounding the artist like guards around Saint 
Sebastian, the masses marching over the corpses of innovators, 
the implacable, stubborn, pursuing, stinging, branding 
masses — what has happened to her in our time? 

We see before us those strange idyllic years when the 
masses began, obsequiously, to accept everything the creative 
caprice of the artist offered her. She became his searching 
slave. She agreed to everything. She blessed everything with 
her thousand-mouth blessing: nothing appalled her — and 
nothing surprised her! The grief of many young artists who 
wished, in vain, to have their own period of rejection is 
understandable and legitimate: the masses really violated the 
good canons of rejection, established by the experience of so 
many heralds of new values in art. 

Poor Chagall! He too experienced the meaning of this 
popular complacency, the worrying smile of devotion, and the 
frowning brows of attention. He too knew that if they hail a 
recognized writer so as not to read him, they hail a recognized 
artist so as not to look. Shuffling through an exhibition, 
one figure throws to another, hurrying to sneak by Chagall: 
"Ach, Chagall . . . He is very talented ..." — "Yes-yes . . . 
Very-very . . . , " — and, relieved, they vanish into the next 
gallery, where they regain human language and, with a 
profusion of words, they burst into excitement before the 
comme il fant canvases of some Excellency. 

The Emperor's clothes . . . Andersen's tale . . . till the 
first fool screams: "The Emperor is naked. ..." Well, this is 
so understandable! Art blinds like Lady Godiva with her 
nakedness. That's why experienced viewers and true 
appreciators, art historians and art critics — all wear glasses 
and increase their size every year. But the masses can glue her 
eyes to the forbidden crack without fear: she won't go blind 
because she doesn't see anything anyway. 

Art criticism is often an act of grace in relation to the 
profane, and an act of justice in relation to the artist; it 
teaches the former to see and gives the latter an opportunity 
to be understood. Must it linger at the deaf lawsuit between 
Chagall and his viewers? It seems that the time has come to 
stand up between them, especially since the artist is right and, 
this time, the viewers are not so guilty — for Marc Chagall 
put before them truly the most difficult problem: about the 
boundaries of what is permitted in art. 

1 34 Texts and Documents 

Chagall Ahrani Efros 

I. The Nature of His Art 

1. He enters the room the way practical people walk in, 
with confidence and precision, overcoming space, striding 
forcefully, testifying to a consciousness that the earth is earth 
and only earth. But look: at a certain step, his body totters 
and snaps drolly; like Pierrot collapsing in halt in a puppet 
theater, fatally stung by betrayal and bending slightly 
sideways, cracked, with an expression apologizing tor some 
guilt unknown to us, Chagall approaches, shakes hands — 
and sits down obliquely, as it tailing into the chair. Chagall has 
the beaming tace ot a young fawn; but in conversation, the 
kindly softness sometimes evaporates like a mask, and then 
we think that the corners ot his lips are too sharp, like arrows, 
and he bares his teeth tenaciously, like an animal, and the gray- 
blue kindness of his eyes too otten shines with the tury ot 
strange explosions, perspicacious and blind at the same time, 
making his interlocutor think he is probably retlected in some 
fantastic manner in the mirrors ot Chagall's eyes, and perhaps 
will later recognize himselt in one ot those green, blue, red, 
tlying, dishevelled, folded-over, twisted people — in Chagall's 
future paintings. And when hours pass in conversation, talking 
about the dear mundane world, work, his wite, his chiki, 
Chagall suddenly boils over with some prophetic phrase like: 
'"We talk only as if before God, our way is taultless because it is 
God's way ..." — we are no longer amazed; we even 
understand Chagall, we can see what strong but rational- 
intangible threads link Chagall's phantasmagoric expressions 
with his stories about dear daily lite, illuminating it and 
permeating it with light, and opening, behind the first plane 
of his words, a second, third, tourth, and more planes — the 
planes of his soul. They are as inevitable in Chagall and as 
essential to his tlesh and blood as those unexpected gray 
strands cutting through the bright curling hair ot the not-yet- 
thirty-year-old artist. 

2. His art is as ditticult as Chagall himselt: to love him, 

you have to get close to him, and to get close, you have to go 
through the slow and insistent temptation ot penetrating 
his shell. Because the tirst impression gets helplessly entangled 
in the contradictions and idiosyncracies of Chagall's art. 

That Chagall is very talented can be seen right away; but 
why does he do all those strange things? Why is this 
marvelously painted old Jew green? And another have red and 
green hands.-' And a third have an identical miniature Jew 
standing on his head, just turning to the other side? In the 
belly of a horse we see an unborn colt, and two human tigures 
protrude from under his hooves. The head ot an old woman has 
leaped oft and is tlying upward, and the headless body swittly 
sinks down to a cow standing on the root ot a house. And the 
girl with a bouquet — a boy glued to her lips, folded up in the 
air, around her head, like a cat hurled upward; an ox has a 
man's jacket and human hands, and sits pensively leaning on 
his elbow, between two bare feet dangling trom his shoulders, 
which probably belong to that teminine head covered with a 
kerchiet, the nape ot her neck hanging down, who spits into 
his mouth. And the man looking through a window at Paris 
has a Janus-head — one tace torward, one tace backward; and 
the cat with a girl's tace looks trom the windowsill at two 
people lying with their heads end to end at the toot ot the 
Eittel Tower and as tall as the tilted multistoried buildings all 
around. . . . 

What is it — disease or mischief, that particular aesthetic 
mischiet ot the young, with which so many great artists begin 
their creative path? 

Perhaps all we now need to do in relation to Chagall is just 
to forgive his present boldness for his great future. Or is there 
some third point ot view trom which another "angle on 
Chagall" opens up, in which his present creation is no longer 
a madness or throwing dust in your eyes, but is artistically 
justitied and psychologically convincing in its mundane 
absurdities, and where the c]uestions of inexperienced 
people — "why does he do it?" — will be met by us, the 
viewers "who came to Chagall, " with the same astonishment 
with which Chagall himselt meets the visitors to his 
exhibition who pour onto his pictures their "why?" and "what 
for?" — Yes, exactly. 

3. It is hard to get close to Chagall because you have to 
overcome his contradictions, to be able to synthesize them. 
Behind the elements ot his art thrusting out in all directions, 
you have to tincl one axis and a general guiding torce 
dominating the multitude ot colortul parts. 

Chagall — a master of mundane life, but also Chagall — 
a visionary; Chagall — a storyteller, but also Chagall — a 
philosopher; a Russian Jew, a Hasid — but also a pupil of 
French Modernism; but also, in general, a cosmopolitan 
fantasist, soaring like a witch on a broomstick above the globe 
and in his swooping flight carrying behind him a multitude 
ot various particles from a multitude of various lives that 
descend in a swarm on his canvases when times ot meditation 
and creativity emerge, and the flowing and roiling elemental 
force ot Chagall's visions is graphically transformed into 
images and colors. 

Were Chagall only a visionary, it would not be ditficult to 
accept him, as it was not ditticult to accept the visions of 
Curlanis. It would be even easier were Chagall a pure depicter 
of mundane life, even it he were the most left and radical 
among the artists creating torms of new realist painting today: 
we are already experienced enough with various "deformations" 
not to be scared ot them, and perhaps even to tind some charm 
in them. Finally, it would not be difficult to be tempted by the 
possibility ot deciphering a convoluted and complex allegory if 
Chagall's headless and green people were only allegories that 
could be changed into a simple and easily understood parable, 
like the monsters, scarecrows, and cripples in Goya's etchings. 

But Chagall is neither this nor that nor the other. His 
visions live entirely in the contines ot the simplest mundane 
lite, while his mundane life is entirely visionary. The people 
and objects ot daily lite are permeated with the nature of 
specters, but these Chagallian specters are by no means 
shadows with no mass or circumference or hue, and whom 
chopping or stabbing is as senseless as chopping or stabbing 
the air. Chagall's spectral daily life has all the palpability and 
weight ot normal objects and bodies. And if, nevertheless, 
he is governed by some law that tears him apart and brushes 
people, animals, and objects around the air, contounds all logic 
and sense ot earthly proportions and interrelations, the poor 
law of allegory or the low law of a crossword puzzle is least 
guilty in it; we face here not a logical game, but an authentic, 
unconditional seeing ot an immense internal saturation. 

4. You can understand Chagall only through empathy, not 
through comprehension. The law ot detormation, which gives 
such a strange countenance to Chagall's works — that law, 
which moves the absurdities and strangenesses of children's 
stories, inventions, and fears — is the same law that creates the 
phantasmagoric world ot Jewish national mysticism, which 
endeavored in the great movement ot Hasidism miraculously 
to transtorm the mundane lite ot poverty and suttering of 
shtetl existence. 

The tavorite and primary link between events in stories 

Texts and Documents 1 35 

children tell is the word "suddenly," which is not at all 
mechanical or external — otherwise the pure truthfulness of 
childish fantasy would have brushed it aside; on the contrary, 
the word "suddenly" expresses the very essence and intimate 
nature of that elemental force of unlimited possibilities, 
which, in the child's eye, abound in the world; the word 
"suddenly" merely warns the listener that this omnipotent, 
elemental force will splash one of its caprices on him. If we 
translate this "suddenly" into adult language, we get "miracle." 
But not "miracle" in the sense of an unusual and rare 
exception violating the laws of nature, but "miracle" as a 
habitual element of daily life, a "miracle" that denies the 
very possibility of "life without miracle," and asserts that 
"anything may happen and does"; and this is precisely the 
world perception that has created the practical miracle-making 
of Hasidism in the modern history of the Jews. 

Such an internal belief that "anything may happen" speaks 
in Chagall's work. Therefore, you can penetrate his art without 
breaking the shell only if you rouse in yourself the vestiges of 
childhood dreams, reviving in your soul those forgotten 
sensations, when the fear of a dark room lived in us, for we 
knew that the hairy hands of some monster may penetrate the 
desolate and black walls and drag us off, and the old chair may 
suddenly bare its teeth and pounce on us. 

What's the difference between the demands offered the 
reader by Hoffmann's fantastic world and the fantastic world of 
Baron Miinchhausen? Isn't it that Hoffmann requires belief in 
his unrealities, and Miinchhausen demands disbelief'' Isn't this 
the foundation on which they build their respective effects? 
Like Hoffmann, Chagall needs a spectator who believes in him; 
his spectator must be able to succumb to the unrealities of his 
paintings and visions, to entrust himself to their special logic 
just as he can abandon himself to the flow of Hoffmann's 
inventions. That is why, when a naive spectator approaches 
Chagall with his naturalistic criteria and angrily points out 
"Chagall's absurdities, " the artist can only wonder bitterly: he 
truly understands nothing in his spectators' indignation, for 
they do not measure his art with the same yardstick as he. 
An axiom in the cognition of art states that the art of every 
master is a country with its own special laws; to understand 
an artist in this sense implies succumbing to those laws and 
approaching the external manifestations of his work — 
paintings and statues — from the inside, from the creative will 
of the artist. That is why, if Chagall's art is invincibly chaotic 
and hopelessly senseless when approached from the outside and 
measured with the illegitimate yardstick of realistic-mundane 
painting, it is, nonetheless, clear and opens up to you almost 
schematically if you follow its own internal logic. 

5. In the development of Chagall's art so far, three periods 
clearly emerge. External boundaries determine the first as a 
preparatory, provincial-Petersburg period, when Chagall came 
from his "Vitebsk Province to St. Petersburg to study painting, 
attended Bakst's school, and worked on his first independent 
paintings. The second period — abroad; Chagall left for Paris, 
where he became "Chagall," impressing the turbulent Bohemia 
of La Ruche with his unusual canvases, which promoted him to 
the ranks of the most interesting "masters of tomorrow," and 
which were taken triumphantly to exhibitions of the new art in 
Berlin and Amsterdam. In this period such chimerical canvases 
were created as Paris Through the Window, The Carter, The Calf 
Seller, The Brides, and so on, with their headless bodies, two- 
faced heads, and flying cows. Finally, the current period — the 
period of his return to Russia at the outbreak of the Great War, 
when Chagall created his Vitebsk cycle: The Barbershop, The 
Shtetl Lyozno, In the Provinces, On the Outskirts of Vitebsk, The 
Prayingjew, The Birthday, The Guitarist, and others. 

The internal line of his creative work passed through those 
chronological boundaries amazingly whole. Chagall had no 
interruptions, no treading water, no deviations. The originality 
of Chagall's art was evident from the beginning and it always 
went its own way; the boundaries of the above-mentioned 
external periods of development indicated only turning points 
and the interrelations of the two major elements of his work. 
These elements, inseparably linked to each other from 
Chagall's first steps, are the genre of mundane life and 
visionary mysticism. Chagall's earliest paintings created the 
basic "Chagallian" impression: the unreal countenance of real 
life. The Chagall of those works is a dreamy child who grew up 
in a Hasidic family in a Jewish shtetl. But childhood and 
Hasidism mean a dream multiplied by a dream; this is the 
source of the boundless ore of Chagall's fantasy. And the 
mundane life around him is the life of a small Vitebsk town; 
that is, the very quintessence of everyday life, the very thick of 
the most pitiful poverty and opaque existence. 

Chagall's dream and the shtetl existence had either to break 
each other or find a higher and integral unity. Art gave Chagall 
the redeeming synthesis. Chagall's painting showed the light 
in the humble poverty of the people, streets, cattle, and huts of 
his little Lyozno, which he depicted with all the acuity of love 
for his hometown. Chagall's childish vision and Hasidic 
mysticism discovered a world of miracle in the daily round. 

There are two paintings. The Wedding of 1908, and The 
Funeral of 1909, where we can observe precisely and profoundly 
how his hometown existence is transformed in the young 
Chagall, and how he constructs his canvases. First of all, there 
is a simple story about a simple event from simple life. A story 
with no details and no makeup, laconic and clear. The Wedding: 
two musicians walk in the street, behind them come the 
bridegroom and bride, followed by an old man and woman and 
two children, and three more relatives bring up the rear; a 
water-carrier and a merchant, a woman and a couple of kids 
have stopped in the middle of the street and are watching the 
procession, and in back, a Jew with long coattails excitedly 
shakes his hands in the air. 

The protocol of daily life! But what a remarkable face it all 
has: as in children's drawings, people are higher than the 
buildings because people are more important than buildings, 
and the perspective of the street is sharply reared up for, 
otherwise, not everybody would be seen, and not everything 
would be clear to us spectators — and is it possible not to 
show us anything in this Lyozno heaven, including the 
streetlamp, raised like a torch above the procession? As in 
Hasidic legends, the figures of the Jews in Chagall's country 
are unusual and transformed: yes, those are shtetl Jews, but 
they are apparently made of some special material, and we 
won't be astonished if the whole procession suddenly rises up 
into the air, where the fiddler will go on chirping and the 
bridegroom will take the bride — we shall not be astonished 
because what we see is "life inside a miracle," and perhaps the 
Jew with long coattails, shaking his hand, is prophesying 
about this miracle, the birth of the Messiah out of this new 
couple, for believers expect the Messiah from every wedding. 

In The Funeral, Lyozno existence reveals its mystical nature 
even more clearly: again everything is simple and everything is 
chimerical, but too simple and too chimerical. In the middle of 
the reared-up street, between the huts, lies the corpse in a 
shroud, surrounded by burning candles; a giant gravedigger 
raises his shovel; a woman spreads her hands high; and above 
them all, astride the roof of a house, a strange Jew, bent over 
his violin, draws a melody — in harmony with the wind 
howling under the glowering sky, tearing up the clouds, and 
shaking the eaves, while over the huts a shoe and sock hang 
instead of si^ns. 

1 36 Texts and Documents 

It is amazing that, even in those early years, Chagall uses 
color and hue as means oi characterizing and influencing the 
psyche ot the viewer, and not just for conveying the realistic- 
existential coloring oi the objects. Chagall goes hand in hand 
here with the most progressive and sensitive masters ot our art. 
The painting of our days consciously uses the influence of color 
not only on the eye, but also on the spiritual world: the 
painterly texture ot the picture is assigned the task ot evoking 
a direct reaction in the mternal world ot the spectator by 
circumventing the plastic image, playing on the spectator as on 
a keyboard with color, line, layering ot paint, and curve ot the 
line; sometimes the artist even tries to characterize an object by 
the very selection ot colors. Chagall promoted this "psychic 
value of color" from the start — subtly and treely. And perhaps 
it is because of its "color mystique" more than anything else 
that the realistic lite in his pictures is permeated with the order 
ot a difterent, miraculous existence. 

6. When Chagall turned up in Paris and had a chance to get 
close to the very center ot world art, the balance between the 
everyday-lite and the visionary elements ot his art was deeply 
disturbed. Above the little world ot Lyozno, with its small 
dimensions and domestic density, hovered the monstrosities 
and spaces of a Cyclopean city. What Chagall encountered in 
the art world ot Paris shattered all the clamps ot his everyday 
images and themes. Chagall's mysticism, in its very essence, in 
its striving to transtorm the countenance ot daily lite, carried a 
centrifugal force striving to rend the trozen forms of observable 
existence. However, that early Chagall was still too attached to 
"the earth," to "his Lyozno," not to hold the destructive 
impulses ot his tantasy in check. But now, Paris removed all his 
shackles, and his Lyozno daily lite was literally torn to pieces 
by the unlimited explosion. 

Chagall landed in Paris at the moment when Cubism was at 
the zenith ot its triumph and intluence. That is, from the 
outside, in the torm ot a mandatory aesthetic program, Chagall 
contronted those aspects ot Cubism to which his own art strove 
from inside him. Cubism splintered the whole visual world 
into pieces and parts in the name ot an abstract aesthetic 
principle; but the mysticism ot Chagall's creation, albeit by 
different laws, also attempted to tear up the cover ot daily life. 
If, by its nature, the cold, heady force of Cubism was strange to 
Chagall's tlery immediacy, in its results, the triumphant 
Cubism gave it exactly what it needed. Most important, in the 
eyes ot the masters ot the new art. Cubism destroyed the value 
ot any re-creation ot objects in their normal, "everyday " aspect; 
the mandatory, essential "detormation " ot objects was 
pronounced as the basic principle ot art. Thus, the doors were 
wide open tor Chagall's fantasy. The raging force erupted. Some 
terrible cataclysm crumbled Chagall's native world ot shtetl 
Judaism. That cycle ot chimerical canvases, described above, 
which created Chagall's resounding tame among the innovators 
and their adherents, and evoked a similar rage in the 
philistines and Naturalists — that cycle is a truly shattering 
confession, a stunning story of a fiery storm which gusted over 
Chagall's art in Paris. "Foil . . . Clowning ..." — but I don't 
know anything more palpable and visual in its power ot 
persuasion and sincerity than those extraordinary paintings. It 
truly took a lot of internal courage and artistic talent to 
imprint the rage ot the storming torce so directly and 
plastically. Perhaps those who value this cycle above anything 
else in Chagall are not so wrong, tor such a conjunction of 
tense depth and artistic significance did not recur in him later 
on. Incidentally, this assessment would be true only it what 
Chagall told us here did not have such an exclusively narrow, 
personal character, it that broad, generally signitlcant value ot 
the internal experience that marks his creativity in the two 

other periods were expressed here. 

Be that as it may, in any case, the purely artistic 
organization of those Paris compositions is no doubt 
remarkable. Channeling the minute chaos of formless visions 
into a plastic trame, it was possible only by a strong artistic 
welding ot all parts of the picture. Cubism helped Chagall here 
too, for if Cubism is especially strong in anything, it is in the 
iron functionality of its artistic constructs, in that utterly 
granite solidity that characterizes the constructions Cubism 
erects trom parts of objects that had disintegrated into their 
components. Chagall knew how to achieve the same thing — 
he channeled the tlood of his anarchic force into the sturdiest 
artistic shores. The raging colors and precise rhythms of the 
Paris canvases bound them as with a steel hoop, and their 
magniticent organization calmed the viewer's eye, excited by 
the internal chaos of the picture. 

7. Chagall was tiiced with a choice: either return his art to the 
forms ot the real world or stop being an artist. You cannot float 
in the melted stream of tuzzy mystical visions for years, for this 
fire not only illuminates but also consumes. A third solution is 
possible: mannerism, when, with a gelid hand and ashen heart, 
the artist produces imitations of himself and offers false visions 
as true. But of course, Chagall, with his unusual ultimate 
sincerity, could not become his own follower. 

His return to Russia at the start of the war was a cure for 
Chagall. Like a prodigal son returning to his father's home, he 
returned to his Jewish shtetl world. He attached himselt to it 
with the same zeal and fervor of spirit with which, in Paris, he 
crumbled and eroded its poor forms. The Vitebsk cycle of 
Chagall's paintings emergeci in a teverish and whining sweep 
and Chagall's devotion to work, always great, here knew no 
bounds. Chagall created dozens of canvases, each a precise 
embrace, arms stretched out to everything Chagall saw again in 
his homeland. He cultivated and lavished all the subtlety and 
delicacy ot his amazing palette and the nobility ot a refined 
painting to record respecttully the tace ot his reacquired 

The tattered parts ot Lyozno daily life are reunited; and "the 
soul of things" that stormed in the general stream return to 
their objects; and in Chagall's painting, the previous Jewish 
world reappears. Chagall paints every alley, every person, every 
house ot his home places. In the Vitebsk cycle, his whole 
family parades before us, young and old, childhood friends, 
neighbors, street urchins, beggars, houses, huts, trees, grass, 
cattle — Chagall even paints the forbidden pig affectionately, 
for truly everything is blessed and holy in this reacquired daily 
lite. And at the same time, what a ditterence trom the daily life 
of his first, pre-Paris period! If there Chagall's mystical force 
strove to break out ot objects, here it strives from the outside 
to get into things. In The Wedding ot 1908, people still walk on 
the earth and we only teel that, at any minute, they may leave 
it and soar in the air, where the true nature ot their being 
draws them; whereas in the paintings ot the Vitebsk cycle, 
these people, on the contrary, are still soaring in the air, as in 
the paintings ot the Paris period, but they are already 
descending to the earth and soon will have to land finally and 
stand on their ittt. Thus a young couple hovers over the shtetl 
in the painting To A[y Wije; thus an old Jew with a sack soars 
over the town in On the Outskirts oj Vitebsk; thus above the girl 
with a bouquet in The Birthday a young man has frozen in the 
air kissing her lips. Even whatever has landed on the earth still 
has some instability in these paintings, a lack of tirmness like 
the tlrst touching ot the earth after a long flight, as if the 
earth's gravity had not yet tully embraced this new Chagallian 
daily lite. In this sense, we must note with what fragility and 
lightness people and things stand on the Vitebsk canvases, and 

Texts and Documents ; 137 

how even houses and rooms are still unstably attached to the 
earth. That is the source of the strange coloring of objects, the 
green, violet, red bodies and faces of people; this is the heritage 
of the Paris whirlwind, its mystical colorfulness, the glow of its 
colorful fires. 

8. Today, Chagall stands in the very heat of his Vitebsk 
period — what the results will be we can only vaguely guess. 
There are reasons to think that Chagall's present road leads him 
to that "grand art" of transformed daily life indicated in several 
of his recent big works — in the magnificent The Prayingjew, 
in The Green Old Man, and such; here the shtetl Jews have 
grown into enormous national figures, deeply rooted in their 
mundane typicality and, at the same time, endowed with all 
the internal significance of a symbol. 

However, new traits have recently begun to break through 
in Chagall's works, traits ot an even denser, hotter, hastier, 
voluntarily obsequious submission to "the tyranny of small 
things," the rule of dear daily life. I saw a new series by 
Chagall: his dacha cycle. A man lives in a dacha with a front 
yard with green trees, on the balcony hang red dotted curtains, 
on the table sits a golden samovar, and, in a wicker basket, 
scarlet and blue berries — here he is, man in Paradise, as if, 
after a hard earthly road, he now abides "in a place of light, a 
place of grains, a place of peace. ..." 

Is it a final reconciliation with everydayness that the 
subdued artist has to go through? But what will then link his 
"grand art" with the "apology for a dacha "? 

How can we know? . . . Except for guesses, what does 
Chagall leave us? We must admit courageously that there is 
nothing more hopeless than predicting his future, for among 
our artists, there is no spirit more free and unexpected in his 
creative ideas than this God-intoxicated Chagall. . . . 

II. The Palette. Graphics. 

I. Russian art may be called art in makeup. You must not get 
too close to it; otherwise, instead of a hero, you will face XY in 
makeup. Russian artists are charming storytellers, clever stage 
directors, and sensitive psychologists. But how many of them 
can also be called masters? In Russian painting, you enjoy the 
insightful vivacity of portrait characteristics as much as the 
accuracy of scenes from everyday life and the almost 
frightening prescience of historical resurrections; Russian 
paintings can be read inexhaustibly. But do not get close to 
their canvases! Beyond the figures and objects, when your eye 
detects the rough surface of a hastily painted canvas and your 
gaze follows the clods and ruts of the daubs — what 
despondency overcomes you among this swampy overflow of 
paint! With fatal clarity, you will distinguish that the traits 
that captivated you are not art, but only the makeup of art, in 
which all effects are calculated on "looking from afar, " "looking 
from a distance, " "looking from an auditorium," through the 
deluding prism of the footlights. The unstable layers of paint 
hold shakily onto the canvas, the color is exaggerated, the tone 
is approximate, the contour is dangling. 

Art in makeup. ... I remember Verhaarn in the Tret'iakov 
Gallery seeking masters of the brush and finding only makeup 
artists. We had no way to respond to him when he filtered our 
painters through the golden sieve of the French palette — a 
palette of masters and mastery — and hall after hall and artist 
after artist flew somewhere into non-being. We ourselves often 
called our art provincial, but we believed that a provincial 
aware of his provinciality was not hopeless. Yet nevertheless we 
did not value our art so poorly. 

Verhaarn's judgment was the judgment of the metropolis of 
art on a provincial school; and when, stooped and pulling the 
hanging threads of his endless moustache and dropping precise 
evaluations, the poet ran from an ancient icon to Shchukin's 
Lady in a Cap, and drew in the air with his long fingers before 
Levitskii's Anna Davia; when, throwing his glasses on his nose 
before Sylvester Shchedrin, Fedotov, or Ivanov, he pronounced 
ambiguous aphorisms about Cezanne, Corot, and the Dutch; 
and later, without stopping, slowing down pensively only 
before the bursts of snow in Surikov's Morozofa, swept by even 
Repin, Levitan, and Serov, to nod affirmatively before Vrubel's 
Portrait of My Wife, and to finish with a deeply satisfied 
"Voila!" . . . before Somov's Lady in Blue — the circle of art was 
drawn by him with authority and conviction. 

Should we reconcile ourselves to that? But what can we do? 
That's how it is, you cannot circumvent or get around it; our 
art is the art of painters but not of masters; it has no taste for 
metier, and every name that augments the short dynasty of 
Russian masters of the brush is a true event. 

2. How did the provincial Chagall turn out to have that rarest 
of gifts denied so many great and praised talents? An 
accidental caprice of fate? Or the buds of a French seed falling 
on the sickly sharpened sensibility of Chagall's talent? Be that 
as it may, the large pleiade of the young generation of our 
artists counts only one master, and this master is Chagall. 

A skillful and excellently precise brush; now fondly licking, 
now scratching; now bathing in the even ripple of the daubs, 
now scattering marvelous "Chagallian " little dots, drops and 
patterns, joyful and resounding, scarlet, green, yellow, leaping 
and coiling, like deposits of posies and Chinamen on the joyous 
wallpaper of our half-forgotten nursery; the surface — 
exquisitely worked — now rough, sometimes protruding with 
the bald spots of the background, sometimes swelling with 
layered iiills of paint; an even and smooth growing and waning 
of the tone, precise and finished, reminiscent of the growth of a 
range of sounds under the fingers of a flawless pianist; and a 

1 38 Texts and Documents 

special soft film of velvet, or even the delicate down of a peach, 
lying over everything and evoking in the spectator a wish to 
touch and caress the painting, to feel its grain with his 
fingertips — this is Chagall's palette, transforming the colorful 
cover of his paintings into a kind of geographical relief map, 
where you can travel long and fruitfully, conscious that the 
irregularities, convexities, and concavities of every centimeter 
are utterly justified. 

A magician among the images and visions of his paintings, 
among his tubes of paint, ringing his brushes and knocking his 
easel, he also conjures up the image of a veritable alchemist in 
a pointed hat knocking his retorts and test tubes, where the 
philosopher's stone crystallizes in smoke and flame. What a 
stew of spices had to be activated to create the painting of The 
Green Loi'ers, Mtiriaseiika with a Dog, The Sweeper, The Praying 
Jewl Only such an elasticity of artistic means of depiction, 
operating with "infinitely small" units of painterly elements, 
allowed Chagall not to get lost in the whirlwind fogs of his 
spectral existence, to fill the skin and bones of the simplest 
beings and objects with the movement of some flaming and 
tenuous matter, and force us spectators to believe that the 
axioms of the regular painterly experience — that presumably 
a body has "body color," a large object is larger than a small 
one, things are not but seem to be, etc., etc. — are just a 
boring delusion of a tired routine that he. Marc Chagall, has 
the authority and power to waive. 

3. We are talking about Chagall's painterly art at its peaks and 
in a static perspective, relying on the best of his recent 
experiments. Obviously the history of the development of 
Chagall's mastery would have brought some qualifications into 
our description. However, even in this most recent and 
accomplished stage, in one respect Chagall is not without fault: 
He cannot be coarse. He is not sufficiently courageous. Like an 
adolescent boy, he hasn't yet emerged from the immature 
plumpness of his limbs. He cannot force his brush to scream 
and shock. He does not command resounding and terrifying 
tones. He may be angry, raging, sometimes even furious, but 
not fearsome. Like the youth Jeremiah, summoned by God to 
serve a prophet, he could have repeated, "Oh, Lord Yahweh, 
look: I cannot prophesy for I am still a youth. " Blessed be he, 
that his current period of reconciliation with mundane life 
requires only an elegiac tenderness and a calm joy, and there is 
room and order for all the delicate and skillful devices of his 
palette. But let us recall his Paris cycle — a cycle of storm, 
shock, and chaos. So what? So, our reproach relates primarily to 
this period. For his is not the roar of apocalyptic storms; 
Chagall whistles on a lyrical pipe, he found sharp, confused, 
and penetrating tones, for let us not forget that he is a master; 
and with the ebb and flow of rage and passion, he hurls at us 
with a wind-up of the whole great force of his clairvoyance and 
talent. But it is not the same brush with which the artist, 
engulfed in the horror of a cataclysm and torn by his spiritual 
pain, hits the trembling and sighing canvas with both hands. 
There is some discrepancy between the tossed-about, torn parts 
of objects hanging in the voids of the canvas, and the 
insufficiently simple and rigorous, over-subtle and aristocratic 
texture of his painterly script. When even the air cracks and 
shrinks and settles in Cubistic folds and edges, as in his Paris 
works, then Chagallian anxiety and confusion is not enough. 
One thing we don't yet know: is this softness and lack of 
courage in Chagall's nature, and will lyricism forever be the 
primary force of his creativity? Or, forged and reinforced with 
time, will Chagall find another language for fiery and fateful 
visions of his creation? If that happens, and if the boundaries of 
his ability and powers thus expand, then Chagall will appear 
before us as one of the most accomplished talents of our art. 

4. A painter turning to graphics becomes a philosopher of his 
own work. 

This will be recognized when we recall that graphics are the 
most abstract and generalizing kind of art. They are more 
calculation than impulse, more thought than feeling, more 
prose than poetry. Therefore, painting is always more 
mysterious than graphics; and an artist, shifting from the 
palette to the pen, exposes himself and carries his true face out 
of the dusk into the light. Perhaps we must even say that the 
graphics of a painter are only the formulas of his painting — 
condensations composed of the main features of his art. 

Chagall turns to graphics suddenly, often, and in a storm. 
The painterly series and the graphic series intersect and 
interact. In their parts, motifs, and topics, they are amazingly 
close. There are graphic themes that later became paintings; 
there are paintings that were eventually transposed into paper 
and ink. Chagall is a graphic artist as much as he is a painter. 
Therefore, his graphics are not a peripheral branch of his art. 
They leave no room for the accidental. These are not fruits of 
creative pauses or fuzzy ruminations, drawn on pieces of paper 
as most artists draw them if they are not masters of graphics by 
profession. Chagall's graphic works are even denser, fuller, and 
more saturated than his paintings. This is how they should be, 
for if, on canvas, Chagall creates his images, on paper he thinks 
about them, investigates their nature. In this sense, it is 
significant that Chagall is now especially and eagerly absorbed 
in graphics. Sometimes it seems that this profusion of graphic 
material indicates that Chagall faces the closure of the current 
period of his painting, for the artist is too cognizant of his 
work to be able to stay long enough with the current themes 
and devices. However, it would be most incautious to 
exaggerate the meaning of this. Chagall never becomes 
analytical, classifying, cerebral. He is always ardent; and, even 
if his works on paper are just a philosophy of his art, it is 
cognate to that fiery philosophy with which the Kabala seared 
the thought and heart of Judaism, running God's chariot, the 
Merkava, through the spheres of the universe; it is cognate to 
the ecstatic world view of Hasidism — and, in the Christian 
domain, to the systems of the Church mystics. 

Therefore, Chagall meditating on his visions, Chagall the 
draftsman, is perceived even more sharply than Chagall the 
painter. Reading Chagall's graphic "book," you read a master's 
compendium of his art — precise, laconic, and lucid: about the 
world of spirit gliding through the world of matter, about the 
disintegration of daily life exploded by the raging of hidden 
forces, about the delicate and intimate earth gathering and 
coalescing the scattered parts of beings and things. But here 
everything is exposed, here there are no unfinished words; this 
is Chagall as he is. 

In his painting, the color and tone of the paints, the 
lightness and accuracy of his brushstrokes, the clever network 
of daubs obstruct and skim the rage of his spirit that fills the 
canvas; they seduce with their own soft beauty. In his graphics, 
however, the furious dynamism of his art appears before us 
entirely bare. Black clods, black grains of dust, black 
ornaments, black nets, black pieces of figures and objects, tense 
as if screwed to the utmost — they truly jump onto the 
spectator, sweep him into their whirlpool, and carry him off. In 
the images of his painting, Chagall is often uncertain. Even 
more often, we perceive him with uncertainty; parts of the 
painting seem to us overly vague, the visions caught in mid- 
flight by one wing. Chagall's graphic solutions are crystallized 
to the highest degree, absolute and final. We think about it 
first of all when, using Hugo's definition, we say that Chagall 
created in art a new tremor. 

5. Painting and graphics are, in principle, mutually opposed 

Texts and Documents 1 39 

and hostile; but in the work of one artist, such a relation 
between them cannot exist because the hving personahty of the 
master reconciles them. In this case, they sometimes even color 
each other. Traits of graphic schematization and sharpness 
appear in the painting; while, in the graphics, we may observe 
a certain painterly gamut of tones and glimpses of chiaroscuro. 
Such is the case with Chagall. For his painting The Birthday 
may serve as a telling example of this kind, which emerged in 
the very heat of his latest graphic "Chagallesques" and 
obviously bears the imprint of graphic art. But Chagall's 
graphics, too, are the graphics of a painter, even by virtue of 
the fact that typically they lack contours and one continuous 

Chagall has a device that became famous and evoked 
imitations by his friends and foes, and which constitutes the 
axis of his graphic technique; thanks to it, the appearance of an 
image on paper has the following visibility: from the paper, 
separate black threads of lines of various degrees of force and 
delicacy begin to emerge; moving toward the center, they grow 
denser, tighter, harder, shift into spilling blots, form with 
them the supporting parts of the image, endow them with a 
final finish; then they flow onward, again lose density and 
mass, splay out, become more transparent, thinner, gossamer, 
again shift into bundles of strings, and, in separate threads, 
disappear altogether in the surface of the page. 

Needless to say, how painterly in its essence is this device, 
which Chagall uses with amazing, unparalleled mastery. It 
predetermines both the lack of a counter-line and the 
possibility of a timely use of graphic chiaroscuro. Thanks to 
this device, the line of the contour in Chagall becomes really 
only "implied." Between one part of the image and another 
there is no direct link. Only in his mind and involuntarily, 
through the white blanks of the page, from one net of threads 
to another, does the spectator carry the line boundary and 
define the image. For such an image — and this is the second- 
most-important result — the white blank of the paper in 
Chagall's graphics is not a background for the image but its 
part, a living, active substance that forms and individualizes it. 
Hence, also, the characteristics typical of Chagall: the torn and 
splayed edges of his figures, the tone of dense and rarified 
dots/grains of dust around his objects, the rhythmical series of 
flowers, circles, diamonds, with which he floods the costumes 
of his graphic heroes; all these are variants of the basic order as 
well as echoes of a "Rembrandtian" chiaroscuro of strokes and 
nets that, here and there, runs through Chagall's page. 

Today, Chagall has moved into illustrations. He has made a 
delightful pictorial setting for children's stories. Such a Chagall 
we didn't know before. The page seems to have swallowed the 
thick and restless lava of his regular black masses. The 
boundaries and blots are scattered accurately and even 
niggardly, reminiscent of the dry pattern of branches in the 
evening sky. Chagall's pen has become laconic and lucid, he has 
subordinated it to himself, for he himself succumbed to the 
text of the stories. His painting attained transparency in its 
obedience to daily life — it seems that the burden of 
illustration will supply a purifying simplicity to his graphics. 

1 40 Texts and Documents 

The Artist Marc Chagall lakov Tugendhol'd 

Sasha is three years old — three thousand, 

and perhaps three times three thousand, 

Sasha doesn't measure his age in years. 

Remizov, Maka 

1. In French exhibitions of recent years, the works of the young 
artist from Vitebsk, Marc Chagall, attracted my attention. 
Fiery-colored like Russian l/ihok, expressive to the point of 
grotesque, fantastic to the point of irrationality, they stood out 
not only among the works of Russian painters, but also against 
the backgrounci of the young French painting. I remember the 
impact they made in the Autumn Salon among the "Cubist" 
canvases of Le Fauconnier and Delaunay, those Fauvist 
innovators. While the mind-boggling brick structures of the 
Frenchmen exuded cold intellectualism and the logic of 
analytical thought, what was astonishing in Chagall's paintings 
was some childish inspiration, something subconscious, 
instinctive, unbridled, and colorful. As if by mistake, next to 
the adult, too-adult, works, works of some child, truly fresh, 
"barbaric, " and fantastic had landed here. Those multicolored 
crooked huts with graves in the middle of the street and a 
fiddler chirping on the roof, that fiery-bloody Golgotha with 
Judas removing the ladder, could have repelled with their 
coarse expression, their savagery of theme, the loudness of their 
colors. But it was impossible not to see them or not to absorb 
their sharp aroma, because, behind them, you felt the all- 
conquering force of a great talent, and a foreign talent at that. 
"Tiens. il y a qiielqi/e chose — c'est tres curieuxV — said the 
Frenchmen, and indeed, in Chagall, you guessed something 
inexplicable in European terms, and therefore "curious," as 
many things in the "barbaric" polychrome music of the 
Russian ballet seemed curious. 

At another exhibition, Chagall showed works refined in 
their polychromy and ornamentation. Headless flying people, 
sentimentally inspired animals, houses outside of time and 
space as in a sweet and wild childish dream, were painted in 
black and white, gold and silver, scarlet, cerise, and other 
unusual and subtle shades. Chagall's fantastics and palette 
seemed overly tense, unhealthy, and delirious, but you couldn't 
doubt their sincerity — could such phantoms and such 
outbursts of painterly heat be invented on purpose? 

Chagall roused interest; merely condescendingly approved 
and almost boycotted by the powerful in Russia — he was 
accepted in the bosom of Paris bohemia, invited to exhibit in 
Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin. But the war stopped his rapid 
rise — Chagall found himself where he came from: in the 
godforsaken Russian province, in his native 'Vitebsk. The result 
of his return to his native and familiar places was a series of 
studies of mundane life, surprisingly realistic, strong and calm, 
but quite varied. Chagall is still steeped in searching, in 
frenetic pluralism, at the junction of many roads — like a child 
who has before him an infinity of influences, wishes, and 
opportunities. But even what he has accomplished so far allows 
us to talk about him as an artistic phenomenon, as something 
authentic and original, which has already come to light and 
begun glittering fantastically. 

2. Can one "explain" an artist? Doesn't the creative spirit blow 
wherever and however it wishes? I think, however, that one not 
only can but must knock at the promising door and 
inquisitively seek keys to it. To say that an artist is simply 
what he is, as he is "made," is to say nothing. Perhaps even the 
genius of Dostoevski i's psychologism is related causally to that 
minute he experienced on the gallows. 

The attempt of a "literary" explanation does not diminish 
the artist. On the contrary, his artistic merits are diminished 
when he himself is so "anecdotal" that such an explanation is 
superfluous. One can explain Chagall in a literary manner, but 
he himself is not a storyteller, not an illustrator, but first of all 
a painter. 

Chagall was born a Jew, grew up in a Lithuanian province, 
matured in Paris. Those are three biographical moments we 
can account for in such a seemingly irregular phenomenon as 
Chagall's drolleries. Let us dwell on each of them. 

Much that would seem "strange" in another perspective is 
explained by Chagall's national Semitic origin. I don't mean 
simply the proximate meaning of this origin, not just that 
Chagall grew up in a Jewish milieu. Marc Antokolskii, to the 
end of his life, never learned to express himself correctly in 
Russian; nevertheless Stasov Stasov — the major Russian critic 
who originated the interest in and collection of Jewish folk 
art — was utterly justified, specifically a propos Antokolskii, in 
regretting the lack of a national element in the work of 
"Europeanized" Jews. Stasov wrote, "How much they could 
have presented to the rest of the world: original melodies, 
unique rhythms, characteristic expressions, and pristine tones 
of the soul!" Isaac Levitan had a lot of soft Jewish melancholy, 
but essentially represented a different strain of the Semitic 
soul — its ability to transform, to resonate with its 
surroundings: in Levitan's landscapes, the objective melancholy 
of Russian nature, sung in the poetry of Tiuchev and Balmont, 
found its highest affirmation. Similarly, we can call Israels and 
Pissarro Jewish artists only insofar as the former sounded a note 
of sorrowful intimacy; and in the plein air of the latter, there 
nestled something soulful, unlike the positive impassivity of 
his fellow Impressionists. But this "soulfulness" is in any case 
not a primary but a secondary phenomenon of the Jewish soul. 
This sadness is acquired historically, yet not it, but the joy of 
the Song of Songs, lies at the source of Jewish culture. However, 
could one talk in general about a national substance of the Jews 
in the sphere of art? Isn't it well known that there is no Jewish 
art because the biblical religion forbade the creation of "graven 
images," and the historical conditions of an ever-worrying life 
could not be conducive to the flourishing and consolidation of 
beauty? But first of all, as Stasov once observed, the accepted 
view of Jewish art as an empty place does not correspond with 
reality. From Stasov 's time on, the collection and study of 
Jewish antiques has been well advanced and it has become clear 
that, if the creative talents of biblical artists did not materialize 
or did not survive to our day in the domain of grand art, they 
did find their application in small art — in synagogue art and 
domestic utensils, in embroideries of the curtains and 
coverings of Torah scrolls, in golden, silver, wooden, filigree, 
and enamel objects, in miniature manuscripts. Religion 
forbade the representation of man — the artists depicted 
domestic animals (beginning with the frieze of the palace of 
Hyrkanos). Religion forbade the convex depiction of animals to 
avoid the temptation of idolatry — the artists painted them in 
colors or concave. It was precisely in the flora and fauna 
ornaments that the decorative talents of Jewish art were 
expressed — decorative because another, three-dimensional, 
relation to the world was forbidden. Hence, its supernatural 
character, fully corresponding to the metaphysics that grew 
from the biblical consciousness. On the other hand, Jewish art 
had to develop abilities to transform alien beauty: nomadic in 
its history, it absorbed elements of Phoenician, Assyrian, 
Hellenistic, and Arabic culture. Hence its "national" weakness 
and racial, ancient refinement. 

In this sense, Bakst's art is undoubtedly "national." 
Decorative in its nature, eclectic, and penetrating all cultures. I 
remember what Bakst told me, "I always set myself the goal of 

Texts and Documents 141 

conveying the music of what is depicted {l ambience de I'oenvre), 
having liberated myself from the bounds of archeology and 
chronology of mundane life." This colorful-musical empathy 
for the depicted epoch is first of all a sensuous perception, 
perception-as-assimiiation — not archeologically, but with its 
sensibility, Eastern-spicy in its coloring and classically refined 
in its linear content — it is the product of some ancient, 
millennia-old preparation, perhaps a reflection of that 
Hellenistic Judaism that covered the Jerusalem of Herod's time 
in glorious garb of the beauties of Japheth. In his beautiful 
essay, "Terror antiquus" Viacheslav Ivanov observed this ancient 
memory in Bakst's mien, though he glossed over his racial 

The same, it seems, should be said about Chagall. No 
matter how young he is, the heritage of the ages weighs on 
him. Just that: "weighs"; the excessive weight of this burden 
explains his hypertrophical nervousness. This does not in the 
least contradict Chagall's childishness, which I mentioned at 
the beginning of this essay: when a child paints eyes not in 
profile but en face, he repeats an ancient experience of archaic 
wisdom. And isn't a wunderkind just this spontaneous and 
mysterious manifestation of an alien experience, accumulated 
by inheritance, that dwells in him and plays with his childish 
fingers? Every one of us is farsighted and fantasizes in sleep; 
but in the sober morning, we catch at the escaping dream in 
vain! Chagall's art is of the night: he knows how to remember 
dreams; and in the dreams the present is entangled with the 

The roots of Chagall's painting go into distant depths and 
its buds are swathed (and poisoned) by the present. In his 
pointed huts and even in the swirling clouds there are echoes of 
Egyptian pyramids; in his palette, which I earlier mentioned as 
influenced by the Russian liihok, there is something more 
ancient and stronger than the liibok — some exotic 
colorfulness, as if the gamut ot antimony, scarlet, fresh flowers, 
and even the very texture of his painting seems to be color- 
dense, cosmetically sensitive. In his paintings, there is no Man, 
forbidden image, or the likeness of God (he does not paint 
individual portraits), but there are people and animals. People 
— poor, oppressed by Orthodox commandments, apochryphal 
fears, stringent religious observance. Animals — meek, 
sentimental, like gazelles, or, on the contrary, with the look of 
a predator. Like the pig muzzles in Gogol', curious "muzzles" 
of bulls and calves peep into his interiors, and then appear as 
demonic symbols of the sinful temptation that led Aaron to 
cast an idol of the golden calf at Mt. Sinai. There is something 
erotic from Sodom, reminiscent of Bosch and Goya, in those 
Chagallian animal faces. 

Chagall's fantastics is saturated with the fears and 
superstitions of Lithuanian Jewry, who experienced the horrors 
of Chmielnitskii's pogroms and the Polish-Russian wars, and 
lives with the prayer-mysticism of Hasidism. Much in its 
fantastics is dark and enigmatic for me, as in the Kabbala. But 
I feel in it, in those homeless and flying people, a burning 
thirst for the mysterious, a tortured renunciation of the life of 
the contemporary ghetto, "rancid, swampy, and dirty" (Bialik). 
Of course, the roots of Jewish mysticism go back to the depth 
of Eastern religion, but it flourished along with the 
persecutions of Judaism — in the discrepancy between the 
bitter reality and the flights of dreaming. In Wyspianski's 
tragedy Wesele {The Wedding), it is not the funny invitation of a 
healthy girl, but the magic oath of the darkly exalted Rachel, 
daughter of the innkeeper, that summons the ghosts to the 
wedding. She came to the wedding precisely because she sensed 
the mysticism of the events in this nuptial "singing hut." Ach 
ta chata rozspiewana] (Oh, this singing hut!) she says to the poet 
and is the first to throw out the window the invitation of the 

autumn night, calling "everybody who suffers, who is tortured 
by fear, whose spirit strives toward freedom" to appear at the 
wedding. Because Rachel's soul, fettered by the mundane life 
of the inn, in her passionate ecstasy longs for a shining miracle. 

This black night, the night of oaths and miracles, peers 
through the window of Chagall's study The Clock. The heavy 
pendulum counts the centuries-minutes of monotonous life, 
and tiny cumbersome figures seek something in the uncanny 
nocturnal void. . . . 

In another study, two Jews, an old man and a boy, sit at a 
table dreaming in the rainbow, green-orange circle of a lamp. 
The cheap lamp, smoking like ancient incense, is flaming with 
the gold of a fire (in which the biblical Jews saw the emanation 
of God), and the gaze of the Jewish boy, drawn to it, is 
enflamed ecstatically: perhaps he sees the redeemer messiah, 
the promised land. . . . Chagall's work has neither literariness 
nor "civil grief," but does have some ardent and sorrowful thirst 
for myth. 

3. But Chagall's fantastics would not be national if it cut off 
its ties with its soil, the mundane life. There is in it the same 
note of strong realism approaching the grotesque, and 
abandoned irony approaching self-mockery, that had to lurk in 
the Jewish soul as a natural self-defense of life, as the instinct 
of historical self-preservation. Medieval miniatures of Jewish 
artists are full of humorous grotesques; humor fills the 
parables, fables, proverbs even now inseparable from Jewish 
speech. In Bialik's poem describing the passionate waiting for 
the Messiah, he didn't forget the details of the coarsely 
realistic, clumsily funny life. 

That is not the way the Poles in Wyspianski's play wait for 
the galloping of the Archangel. Waiting for centuries in vain 
did not teach the Jews to combine humor with the pathos of 
tragedy. The eternal wanderer, Ahasverus, whom Chagall liked 
to depict wandering over the blue cupolas and roofs of a 
Russian province, saw so much in his historical age and got so 
used to everything that nothing will crush his eternal passage: 

Ton jours le soleil se Tei<e, 

Tonjoi/rs. toHJours 

Tourne la terre on moi je conrs 

Tonjours. tonjonrs. 

— Beranger, Le jn if errant 

This is the world irony, I would say, and the premature old 
man's wisdom that erupts in Chagall. And everywhere, at the 
thresholds of houses, under snowflakes, and even on the roofs, 
his old fiddler, the eternal accompaniment of weddings and 
funerals, plays a melody, old as the world and monotonous, 
with a recitative. ... I remember my amazement at a study of 
Chagall's showing a pregnant woman and a pregnant horse. "Is 
it my fault it always happens like that?" answered the artist. I 
also recall another work named "What Happens at Home" — a 
crowded Jewish interior where people eat, pray, and give birth, 
and above it all, as in a dream, phantoms of people are flying as 
if falling from the opened sky. Rozanov, who attached himself 
so one-sidedly to the "wedding" essence of the biblical soul, 
would have seen in this painting by Chagall a synthesis of "all 
of Israel," a bedroom of world history with its "womb" and 
"offspring bearing." But this is something else; this is the 
synthesis of the eternally living mundane life and the fantastics 
hovering above it. Chagall's interior where people eat, pray, 
and give birth and where, instead of a ceiling, there is a thick 
blue sky — it is the same "singing hut, " the singing hut of the 
homeless-fantastic mundane life, by some miracle existing 
between sky and earth. . . . 

Here we approach the very essence of Chagall's talent; he 

142 I itxls citicl Documents 

sees the real world sharply and senses another world beyond it. 
In the cynical grotesques ot Chagall there is the tairytale 
quality of capriccio; in the small provincial mundane life, he 
grasps some great being. ... In this sense, Rozanov's 
retrospective formula "Zion, Babylon, and Vilna" is really 
applicable to Chagall if we substitute Vitebsk for Vilna. 
Chagall grew up in a crowded provincial ghetto and the images 
of mundane lite pursue him obsessively, even when he describes 
the subtle and lyrical aloofness of the loving Pierrot and 
Colombine. But apparently there is some clearing m 
"provincialism," at b/s street, bis home — into the boundless 
mystical. The dirty girl Aldonza is no less inspiring than the 
beautiful Dulcinea because she leaves room tor a dream. 
Hoffmann, who grew up among philistines, apple-sellers, and 
the Tomcat Murr, was a bright storyteller; and Gogol' found 
fantastic curios in the stupidity of Russian mundane life. 
Chagall senses the supernatural, the mysterious, not only in 
Jewish life, but in mundane life in general. He is a student of 
Bakst and Dobuzhinskii, but in the aiithi:ntii:ity of his 
provincial observations, no doubt, the student surpassed his 
teachers. For in Chagall's "provincialism" you don't find 
Dobuzhinskii's graphic precision, his metropolitan mockery of 
the provinces, but there is some spiritual participation in the 
described milieu, an artless naVvete of observing. Dobuzhinskii 
senses the mysticism of the big city, whereas in the province he 
is captivated by the funny and old-fashionecf. Chagall senses 
the mysticism of the provincial even in the funny and 
contemporary. His province is a fairy tale, sentimental and 
cynical at the same time, boring and mediocre, and yet 
fantastically bright. He has holidays when dancing grass grows 
green in the sky and huts sway upside down, and funerals 
where the sky is covered with a black crepe. 

His churches, mills, market-fair showbooths, many-colored 
hats are like children's toys; his clumsy little humans at 
weddings and funerals are like marionettes; and even inanimate 
objects, lamps and tables, seem in his paintings to be 
mysteriously alive. Chagall could realize on stage what the 
contemporary theater needs more than anything — psychological 
decoration, in which mundane life-style would seem real and 
inspired from within, like things in Remizov's world, through 
the prism of the girl Sasha, who is "three years old — three 
thousand, and perhaps three times three thousand" (Maka). For 
Hoffmann was right: only "childish poetic sensibility" can 
introduce us into the true world. But, in Chagall's early work, 
there was an unhealthy childishness — a hypertrophy of "three 
thousand" years, and a tense worry of the contemporary Jewish 
Pale. As if some bloody, pogrom fears poisoned his childhood, 
and his fantastics often seemed like a feverish delirium of a sick 

4. Paris exerted a positive influence on Chagall. He remained 
himself, but accjuirecl what he lacked — form. From childhood 
on, he had a sensibility for color and linear patterns, but in his 
images, there was none of the "plasticity" that brings images 
closer to semblances, which religion had forbidden since 
ancient times. In his works, there was no flesh, and his 
decorative mysticism was not sufficiently convincing. He was 
in danger of remaining a "wunderkind" in short pants. His stay 
in Paris brought him close to Aryan idolatry without depriving 
him of the national-eastern qualities (color and ornament); it 
made his work more condensed by acquiring a sense for volume. 
The stone-gray landscape of Paris taught him to feel the 
borders of objects to a much greater extent than the crooked 
walls of the provincial, colorful houses. 

Chagall passed through the school of Cubism, but he did 
just that: he passed through it without getting fossilized 
spiritually as did many others; for him, form didn't become a 

sovereign fetish. A good example of this influence is the 
outstanding study The Sweeper — a hard, metal-formed figure 
among heavily swirling provincial dust. Only now, having 
seen Cezanne and El Greco, was Chagall able to paint such 
architecturally ornamented, compositionally solid, and 
truly monumental biblical images as his dour religious Jew 
in a black-and-white tallis, resembling a biblical prophet, or 
some other artisan on the background of a pyramid of 
heaped-up huts. 

But this, of course, doesn't mean that Chagall began 
painting a la Cezanne or Picasso — his mode of observation 
emerged from the Paris crucible with all its erstwhile 
originality. The bliick-and-white harmony oi The Praying Jew 
perhaps reflected the beauty of black-and-white velvet of the 
synagogue seen in childhood. The influence of Paris was 
manifest precisely when Chagall returned to his home 
province. He painted the same motifs that had earlier 
captivated him, only now they reflected not just a "childish 
poetic sensibility," but also the mastery of a mature artist. In 
the blue domed temple and little houses covered with snow of 
his Eternal Jew there is a beautiful, sharp hewing of surfaces. 
The dark, dirty smocks of his Jews became formed and 
articulated in hard, sculpted folds with rusty blue shades. 
"Without losing any of its mysticism, the whole Chagallian 
world became materially tangible: Chagall learned to see 
dreams while awake, in the middle of the sober day. 

But his return to his homeland also brought some humility 
to his observation, softened his satirical edginess and screaming 
colorfulness. Such are his Vitebsk sketches of 1914. In those 
provincial streets, under a somber gray sky, with the heaped-up 
wooden houses, delicately puffed-up trees, na'i've shop signs, 
and poor thin horses, you no longer hear the anguished scream. 
You sense in them some subdued, humble love. His Barbershop 
is veiled in calm — one of the best interiors I have seen in 
exhibitions of recent years, and I. A. Morosov did well to buy it 
— a provincial barbershop filled with a meek sun, dusty air, 
and the pitiful smile of cheap wallpaper. . . . 

The ennobling of Chagall's colors was especially reflected in 
the sketches of Vitebsk women. Here is a woman in a yellowish 
coat, pale pink skirt, against the background of a gray wall and 
black rags; from this coarse and poor piece of life, Chagall 
created a refined "legend " of cool harmony. And here is a 
woman ironing with a black ornamented iron, among the 
decorations of the wallpaper and the green-scarlet curtain — a 
work of subtle Degas-like beauty. The stamp of a master lies on 
many other studies — soldiers with bread, painted with an 
amazing confidence, guitarists substituting for the former 
fiddlers, and even on the series of provincial Pierrots and 
Columbines. Somebody said that you can recognize a colorist 
in the gray tone, indeed Chagall's gray-black gamuts testify to 
his coloristic taste. 

Chagall remained the same decorator and ornamentalist his 
race made him. But his work began to liberate itself from the 
flood; his people stopped flying in the rooms. In reality itself, 
in the truth of three dimensions, he began to guess the 
mystical life of colors and lines. The young and homeless 
Ahasverus stood with both feet on the ground — wet, warm, 
fruitful. And though, as before, he is different in every 
painting, still this nestling to mother earth is a hopeful sign of 
Chagall's creative blossoming. 

He has to preserve his Hoffmannesque "childish poetic 
sensibility," so rare in our adult, too adult, time, and his 
sharpness and fantastics. But he will finally have to overcome 
his nervousness, his anguish. When the legacy of "three 
thousand" years stops burdening him, and becomes instead his 
epical tradition, his wonderful art will become religiously 
pacified and luminous, and, therefore, also objectively valuable. 

Texts and Documents 1 43 

The Nevs^ Yiddish Theater 

The Jewish Theater Society and the Chamber Theater 

Lei' Levidov 

This text and the two that follow were included in a programmatic 
brochure published by thejeu ish Theater Society in Petrograd. in 
Yiddish, with the title The Yiddish Chamber Theater: On Its 
Opening in July 1919. 

"Let there be light" — and the Yiddish Chamber Theater 
appeared in the white world. . . . Dreams came true, all our 
wishes were fulfilled. 

I remember it was on November 9, 1916, that the Jewish 
Theater Society was opened. A joyful, festive day. The 
auditorium was packed, excited faces, solemn speeches, an 
enormous elation of the soul. A new society was born and it 
called aloud: "Come work for a Yiddish, national, painterly 
theater!" . . . The congratulations, the speeches, the telegrams 
flowed together, as in a chorus. . . . 

Isn't it strange, frightening? Jews, who have contributed 
the best artists, who have given the most splendid flowers to 
the universal altar of art, don't have their own theater to speak 
Yiddish with them? . . . No! Such a theater must be. This is 
demanded by the honor and dignity of the Jewish people, this 
is demanded by our national culture. . . . The new Yiddish 
Theater Society promised to create such a theater, a theater for 
us. They swore to devote all their strength to carry out that 
assignment. And with excitement, with love, they set to work. 

It was a hard time. The old regime lay dying and, as it died, 
as always, bloodthirsty and mercilessly, it persecuted the 
exhausted Jewish people. 

A Yiddish theater. . . . What had borne such a name in the 
Jewish street was not a theater: the Yiddish actors had no right 
of sojourn, no place to rest; the Yiddish language was 
persecuted and derided; the surrogate theater that existed was 
not cultural and was benighted. The whole being of Yiddish 
theater was like a stupid, invented tale. . . . 

Meetings of the new society began — raging, passionate, 
long. No one knew what they should begin to do. 'What to do 
first, how to build the new building? . . . Hadn't all previous 
attempts come to nothing? . . . There was no clay, no bricks for 
the building. ... At the first meetings, the word was spoken 
for the first time: "A Yiddish studio," a Yiddish theater school. 
And that word was soon accepted, found a warm resonance in 
all hearts. Yes, we really should have one, we really should 
begin here. Three long meetings were devoted to the single 
question of whether to create a school-studio or a studio- 
school. . . . How many arguments were poured out, how much 
excitement. . . . They discussed programs, they prepared a 
repertoire, they listed the teachers and actors by name, they 
wrote estimates . . . and then . . . the Revolution blazed up, 
and the light of our work disappeared in the glow of 
Revolutionary sun. A series of meetings and assemblies began, 
political arguments took over. The issue of the theater was left 
by the wayside. In vain did some try to go back to work — no 
one thought about theater any longer. The convention of 
Yiddish actors in Moscow did no more than force some to 
think again about beginning the halted work. That was hard to 
do. The political sea was too flamboyant, the world order had 
moved too much for people calmly to be able to begin again to 
build the national, cultural life. But it seems that culture is 
stronger than the transient phenomena of life. New times 
came, new songs, new faces. And among the new, also old and 
good friends. Why not? . . . Welcome. . . . Let us now begin 
our work for the community again. The thought has again 
appeared that excited us and made us all happy. Out of the 
chaos, our idea is born again, the idea of the studio. The studio 
is our own child, our only child, the holy dream that was 

1 44 Texts and Documents 

dreamed by the Yiddish Theater Society. And now the dream is 
reahzed. The studio began to live, not only in words, but in 
action. And it lives, and works, and gets out into the wide 
world. The Yiddish Chamber Theater is yet a second step from 
our studio. And the current performances of the Yiddish 
Chamber Theater are the beginning of a new period, of a new 
life in the Yiddish theater. What kind of spectacles these will 
be we shall see later — we shall see what they will give the 
Jewish people. But, on the other hand, we see here young, 
capable people, who love with body and soul their theater, 
their language, the idea of our own national theater, and they 
work hard, very hard. And that says everything. 

The new word has already been said, the new word has been 
turned into new action. . . . New Theater, you have our best 
wishes. The Jewish Theater Society sends you its blessing. 

Lev Levidov 

Chairman of the Jewish Theater Society 

Our Goals and Objectives Aleksti Granovskii 

A hundred and fifty days ago, we opened the doors of our 
studio and beckoned to those who wanted to work and lend 
a hand to build the Yiddish theater. 

A hundred and fifty days — in such a short time, one 
normally cannot speak of achievements and realization. 

And if, today, we raise the curtain, we won't and can't say: 
See, this is what we have accomplished. No, we just want to 
say: Look, this is the path we want to take. 

Do not be concerned about the technical roughness of our 
first performances. We are still young: we have been alive for 
only five months. . . . We invited no professional artists, no 
experienced stage workers; not only did we not invite them, 
we didn't let them in, because more than anything we hate in 
art the artisan smugness of the "professionals," their artisan 
approach to "play" and "performance," their inability to 
abandon themselves to the joy of creation. 

On our path we took along no artisans; but we ourselves, 
obviously, had no time in 150 days to become masters. And 
what we show you, raising our theater curtain for the first 
time, is just a vague hint of the path we tread. 

Yiddish theater. ... It never existed, and the mess that 
dominated the Yiddish stage was an eternal reminder to build 
the Yiddish theater! And our task, our goal, is to create 
something we never had and always strove for — the Yiddish 

We do not agree with those who assume that Yiddish 
theater has its own special laws, must feed on a specific 
repertoire, and must not depart from daily life, or, what is 
called in Russian, byt. 

We say: Yiddish theater is first of all a theater in general, 
a temple of shining art and joyous creation — a temple where 
the prayer is chanted in the Yiddish language. We say: the 
tasks of world theater serve us as the tasks of our theater, and 
only language distinguishes us from others. 

How and what will our theater be? What gods will it serve? 

We cannot answer these questions. We don't know our 
gods. . . . We seek them. . . . 

Seeking — this is the word we put at the head of our 
program. . . . We shall seek roads for the actors, as for the 
director, the painter, and the playwright. 

We shall not stand still for a moment. And, perhaps, in 
seeking a path, we will have to stray, perhaps we will make 
gods for ourselves whom we will later topple from their 
thrones. . . . 

Perhaps. . . . But one thing will serve as our justification — 
our will to find the right path to the true gods. 

I have the great honor to be a leader of the first Yiddish 
theater. And today, with the serious feeling of the 
responsibility I assumed, opening the doors of the theater to 
the general audience for the first time, I beg everyone who has 
come to our little lights to transfer the whole weight of 
criticism and carping to us, the leaders, and not to touch the 
studio workers — because none of them thinks he is ripe 
enough to appear before your observing and serious eyes, for 
each of them treats reverently the task he has set himself — to 
become an actor of the Yiddish theater. And if, today, they 
stand fiice to face with you, it is only because they fulfill the 
disciplinary requirements of their leaders. 

We found it necessary to open our doors so early to the 
general audience in order to proclaim to everyone, to all 
who cherish Jewish art, Jewish culture, Jewish theater; to all 
who are willing to take pains, seek, struggle and achieve: 
"Come to us! " 

Using the kind proposal of the Yiddish Theater Society to 
write a few lines for the opening of the Yiddish theater, I 

Texts and Documents 1 45 

cannot refrain from expressing my profound gratitude to all 
my colleagues in our work, for finding a way to devote 
themselves entirely to the work, for their extraordinary 
attitude toward the goals and objectives of our studio, for their 
ability to forget personal interests in the name and for the sake 
of the common work. 

Aleksei Granovskii 

Artistic Director of the Yiddish Chamber Theater 

The Past and the Future of Yiddish Theater 

Al. R/ves//U!i/ 

The sad, almost hopeless situation of Yiddish theater is 
known to everyone who was ever more or less interested in it. 
We can say that in no area of Jewish art has the Jewish people 
been so frozen as in the area of theater art. Before our eyes lies 
a desert with no hint of an oasis. In that desert, no Moses ever 
appeared, no Pillar of Fire ever arose to eject even for a moment 
the darkness, the chaos of Yiddish theater. And saddest of all is 
that those who strayed in the gloomy and broad desert, the 
Yiddish actors, could not say, "We want to return to Egypt to 
the fleshpot." . . . No! The Yiddish actor never had a good, 
satiated day; never has his pharoah, his bitter lot, shown him a 
ray of happiness. 

If we want to find out why it happened, if we want to 
ascertain the reasons for the harsh, almost fatal, illness, to 
investigate the source of this poverty and, let us say it openly, 
this shameful weakness of Yiddish theater art, we have to 
admit that the whole responsibility falls on the cultural 
elements of the Jewish people. 

Until the 1870s, no one even knew or talked about a 
Yiddish theater. The Haskala people with their conspicuous 
tendency to quote the "Holy Tongue," on the one hand, and 
the assimilationist elements of the Jewish people, on the 
other, were both hostile to the so-called "jargon," and 
contemptuously put a black seal on the "mother tongue," 
called it "maidservant." And only such true friends of the 
Jew as Sh. Abramovich [Mendele Moykher Sforim} had the 
boldness and courage to write in Yiddish. 

If the Yiddish language was a maidservant, the Yiddish 
theater was her brother. Forty years passed and throughout that 
long period, the Yiddish language triumphantly showed it was 
not a maidservant at all, though it does faithfully and honestly 
serve the Jewish people. Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem 
Aleichem, Peretz, Sholem Asch, Frug, Morris Rosenfeld, 
Yehoash — such names than can adorn the finest European 
literature, and they have indeed crowned the "jargon" with an 
enduring crown studded with the most precious diamonds. 
And still the Yiddish stage remained poor, neglected and 
debased, morally and artistically downtrodden, almost as forty 
years ago. 

The Jewish intelligentsia, the Jewish art patrons showed no 
sign of attention to Yiddish theater. A sickly weakling, it was 
born in southern Russia forty years ago, and has remained 
anemic and weak to this day. The pioneer of Yiddish theater, 
Avrom Goldfaden, may have been cultural and talented, to a 
certain extent; but he had absolutely no idea of theater art in 
the European sense of the word. With no plan, no view toward 
the future of Yiddish theater art, he laid the first weak stone for 
the Yiddish theater building, and the material, the bricks he 
took for this building were so weak the building was shaky 
from the very first day. Its architecture was far from an 
aesthetic taste, from what is called art. The first Yiddish actors 
were ignorant artisans, often people who left their workshops 
looking for an easier piece of bread, mostly promiscuous young 
people for whom acting on the stage was the same as a "Purim- 
shpil." With no literary taste, no sign of intellectual 
development, they played, sang, and danced, and were happy 
when the rich contractors in Romania burst out laughing at 
their "Purim-shpil" barbs. Today a lover, the next day a "Kuni- 
Lemel" [shlemiel], tomorrow a witch, the Yiddish actors, as it 
were, did not feel their shame and "thundered" — as they put 
it — in the same manner wherever the police allowed them. 
The Jewish cultural elements stood at a distance, criticized, 
mocked, but did not dip a finger in cold water to remove all 
ugliness and clumsiness from the Yiddish theater. Chaos 

1 46 Texts unci Dociniieiits 

reigned: you will find no art, no direction on the Yiddish stage. 
And if you recall such talented Yiddish actors as, tor example, 
Kaminskaya, Edelman, Zhelyazo, Libert, and others, you must 
admit with deep grief and despair that those talented actors, 
too, were content with the heavy atmosphere prevailing on the 
Yiddish stage; that they, too, never protested the contemptuous 
order, never strove to progress; and tor that very reason, they 
regressed. Their god was Gordin, to him they bowed and knelt 
and brought offerings. But those otterings had no sweet smell 
of art either, for the altar, the Yiddish stage, remained dirty, 
desecrated by ignorance and trivolity. 

Yes, there were moments when rays seemed to appear, 
which were supposed to illummate the darkness of Yiddish 
theater art, the mundane dusk in which it was covered like a 
mourner: the immortal Peretz wanted to be Samson and rip 
the chain binding Yiddish theater art. He traveled through 
cities and towns, screamed "Save us!," rattled an alms box 
inscribed with the terrible words, "Charity saves trom death." 
But it didn't help. "Kuni-Lemel" and the Witch Yakhne 
screamed louder, the Jewish intelligentsia didn't respond, the 
portly Jewish patron carefully hid his wallet, and the Yiddish 
stage remained a dirty, promiscuous maidservant, laughing 
wildly, dancing, making ugly grimaces, here, in Russia, and 
overseas — in America. The same lot tell to the poor, sickly, 
and talented Peretz Hirshbeyn, who tried to start a new page 
in the Book of Lamentations of the Yiddish theater. Neglected, 
rejected, despairing, tilled with griet and rage, he had to tall 
like a scorned Don Quixote and buried all his hopes. Swindlers, 
speculators, dead souls, good-for-nothings, ignoramuses 
governed the Yiddish stage, and Holy Sabbath gave way to the 
play To Be a Jew: The Jewish Core irritated along with The So/// 
of My People and other trash. 

And only a year ago a mourntul shout was heard: "How 
long?" Till when will the immortal "Kuni-Lemel " and the 
screaming "'Witch Yakhne" dominate? The shout was issued by 
the newborn Yiddish Theater Society. 

Of course, from shouting to doing is a long way. "We must 
however admit that the shout resonated among a small group 
of people, and the "dry bones" of the Yiddish theater art called 
the attention of several social activists. The positive result 
was that, tor the first time, not a dilettante but a protessional, 
A. M. Azarkh [Granovskii], became interested in the Yiddish 
theater. He gave a lecture to the Drama Section, where he 
developed a plan to create a theater studio, modeled on 
European theater studios. "With a courageous energy, he strove 
to realize his plan, and — let there be light — the doors of the 
Yiddish theater were opened. 

The tirst Yiddish theater studio set serious objectives tor 
itself. It encountered great difficulties on its path. It 
experienced grave doubts, moments ot groping and of despair. 
But It has come to lite — it demands existence. It wants to 
produce the kernel trom which a normal Yiddish theater, 
Yiddish theater art in a European sense, will develop. It wants 
the tuture Yiddish actor to be first of all a true protessional, to 
respect the art he wants to serve. It wants the Yiddish stage to 
become a "Holy Place," the Yiddish actor to teel responsibility 
for his work; though a son ot his people, he will, at the same 
time, be a faithful son ot art in the highest and finest sense ot 
the word. It wants the most talented Yiddish writers to create 
for the Yiddish stage, aware that their work will not be 
protaned, that the Yiddish actor and the Yiddish audience will 
respect the place that holds up a mirror to Jewish lite. It wants 
to retresh the dirty, moldy Yiddish repertoire and illuminate it 
with mastertul translations and truly literary, original dramatic 
works. In short — it strives, and the striving is, in itselt, a 
great achievement. The will to create something better and 
more serious will be its advocate; the call, the waking must 

attract the attention of the best Jewish cultural forces. 

We believe we are standing on the threshhold of a new 
Yiddish theatrical age. We believe the revolution that wants 
to destroy the old, sick building of the former Yiddish theater 
will bring its good truits. We believe the activity of the 
young Yiddish "Chamber Theater" will be treated not with 
disparaging criticism, a suspicious smile, a shrug — but with 
empathy, with seriousness of word and deed. We believe those 
who will criticize will honestly admit that every beginning is 
hard, that only he who does nothing makes no mistakes. 

The situation ot Yiddish theater today is harsh and bitter. 
But even harsher are the conditions, the hostile atmosphere in 
which one has to work, which can be defined as "Plenty of 
critics and few doers." . . . 

So come, writers, experienced professionals, musicians, 
painters! Answer our call and courageously help build a 
beautiful, strong, and truly Yiddish-European theater 
building! Don't stand aside, bring bricks and clay — and let 
the language ot the builders not be confounded. Let us 
understand and empathize with each other. Let us strive to the 
sun with the tower we are building, and let us remember that 
only in unity, in a united striving and will, lies the tuture of 
the new Yiddish theater. 

M. Rivesman 

Literary Director of the Yiddish Chamber Theater 

Texts and Documents 1 47 

The Historical Path of the Yiddish Theater 

Abram Efros 

Frojn "Before the Opening Curtain: On the Opening of the Season in 
the Yiddish Theater" (in Russian). In Tearr i muzyka (Theater and 
music). Moscow, no. p (ip22). pp. Iio-il. After leaving the theater for 
several months. Efros wrote this article a propos the dress rehearsals for 
Granovskii's staging ofGoldfadens The Sorceress. The first part of 
the article is omitted. 

... I sat in the empty hall at night, not used to being a 
stranger, watching Granovskii knock on the bannister, 
interrupting the rehearsal and changing the complex pattern of 
movement for the hundredth time; the mass body of the 
troupe, when stopped, scatters immediately, softens, rearranges 
itself on the stage, only to reassemble obediently, fuse, freeze, 
and dart ahead — pattering, leaping, and somersaulting — 
over the surfaces, roofs, ladders of a fantastic Jewish shtetl, 
invented and populated by the generous talent of [the artist 
Isaak] Rabinovich. Sensing in myself a growing joy in this 
unfolding "Jewish game," in these sayings, songs, purely 
national intonations that suddenly became theatrical, in the 
beautiful subtlety with which Mikhoels serves them up, in the 
freshness of young Zuskin's talent (an undoubted discovery of 
the theater), I felt clearly one thing which I had never felt 
before and which suddenly explained to me why — in spite of 
all our disagreements and distancing, in spite of my skepticism 
and negation, the failures, clumsiness, artificiality, unjustified 
elements in the performances — I nevertheless am drawn, I 
would say hypnotically, to the stream of GOSEKT, as to the 
riverbed of the imperative, unavoidable, historically unique 
path of the Yiddish theater. 

Oh, that Yiddish theater! — Without a foundation or a 
roof, without borders to its domain or any blueprint! A theater 
that is its own grandfather, father, and son. A theater that has 
not yet any past, present, or future, and that must create for 
itself a past, a present, and a future. A theater that has to live 
simultaneously in three dimensions of time. A theater with no 
tradition, but which has to invent for itself a historical line; a 
theater without a present, but that has to be at the cutting 
edge of contemporary theater art; a theater without 
perspectives, but that has to mold the form of what is to come. 
That is why we have no choice here. Here we cannot prefer one 
thing to another. Here talk about trends is more negligible 
than anywhere else. Here you can either be in the center of the 
Jewish "stage" — or be entirely outside it. Coexistence is 
impossible here; there is room here for only one thing, and one 
yardstick: what stands before us? A theater of all dimensions of 
time? "A theater of three times," creating of its "now" both a 
forward and a backward? Speaking simultaneously with the 
triple voice of history, reality, and future? If so, then no matter 
what it is in its composition, quality, magnitude, it is the 
center, the regulator, the lawgiver; it is history, no matter how 
little the tribal philistine recognizes it, no matter what 
fashionable or approachable admirers it has gained for itself on 
the side, and no matter where it may be drawn by alien 
pointing fingers. 

In its national sphere, the Yiddish Chamber Theater is such 
a historical center, dominating the situation, directing the 
evolution, although alongsicle it there is the very good HaBima 
and the very bad Branciesco or Zhitomirskii (I have little 
orientation in those pseudonyms, for which I apologize). And 
though in HaBima, my dear fellow tribalists are so enthusiastic 
they come down with hiccups, and in Brandesco-Zhitomirskii 
they fill the auditorium till they faint, nevertheless, in spite of 
it all, both HaBima and Brandesco and many other things 
around are a mere mirage, fiction, while the Chamber Theater 
is a historical reality. 

In this sense, its role is like Chagall's role in plastic art, in 
spite of the absolute polarity of artistic temperaments, Chagall 
the ecstatic and Granovskii the intellectual. And so not in vain 
did Chagall enter the stage for the first ti le i i the Yiddish 
theater, not in vain did he spread his theatrical forms precisely 
from this stage. These forms, like everything else in his art, 
became kinds of obligatory models essentially influencing the 
formation of characters in The Sorceress of Rabinovich, who 
created brilliant "variations on Chagallian themes" in his 

Looking back, we may say that Chagall is "an artist of three 
times," as GOSEKT is "a theater of three times." Chagall, too, 
has absorbed in his art the traditions of the national past, the 
modernism of today, and the buds of the future. He drew 
threads back, in depth, to the past — close to the rooted, 
authentic, living faces of old Jewish life — and brought them 
to his paintings with all their living and dead inventory, with 
all their long coattails and long beards, canonicity and 
peculiarity, everydayness and fantasy, as GOSEKT brought 
them in The Sorceress onto the theatrical boards. But in the 
language of his paintings, Chagall is so contemporary that he 
marches in the front row of the European masters of leftist art, 
while his relation to the future is determined by the stamp he 
has placed on a huge contingent of young artists, including 
many who are now eager to dissociate themselves from him. 

Chagall's so-called "Vitebsk period" was in this sense crucial 
for the work of the young generation of Jewish artists. For the 
first time on the Yiddish stage, Granovskii's Sorceress succeeded 
in finding adequate theatrical solutions for the same age-old 
life in the forms of contemporary leftist art, and, with that 
precision that sets landmarks for the future, for the work to 
come. The solutions of The Sorceress have general significance 
and it seems that The Sorceress is the first step of a "Vitebsk 
period" in the emergence of the Yiddish Chamber Theater as 
an important and influential force. 

1 48 Texts unci Dnci/ments 

Our Theater Aleksei Granovskii 

Published, in Yiddish, in Literarishe Bleter. Warsaw, vol. $. no. ij 

{April 27. 1928). 

In 1919, I was given the task of creating a Yiddish theater 
school; the school was opened the same year in Leningrad, and 
then numbered thirty-some students. In 1920, the first 
graduation and simultaneously the first theater performance 
took place. Since we felt it necessary, considering our teaching 
methods, to produce a unified whole, we doubted if we should 
accept students from other dramatic schools or actors from 
different theaters. All the human material of our theater came 
to us as "raw material," and only alter they had been processed 
in our workshops were they to appear on our stage. For us, the 
foundation of artistic education was that the actor himself 
must be in control of his own emotional apparatus; he then 
trains his own capabilities, his body, and all his feelings to be 
subordinate to his will, his controlling reason, and that precise 
rhythm on which we build all our productions. In other words, 
the basis of artistic education is to train the actor's capability to 
become a part of the organic whole of the performance. 

I consider stage art an independent and sovereign domain. 
Therefore, all elements constituting a finished performance — 
the man, the script, the music, the sets, and the light — must 
be subordinate to a single, steadfast thought and the completed 
score of the production. I don't mean that I want to bind the 
actor and deprive him of the possibility of being creative — on 
the contrary, he is given the greatest opportunity to express 
himself But since he is educated in the sharp consciousness of 
our task and feels that he is a responsible part of a monolithic 
whole, he is capable of subordinating himself to the primary 
task and of being creative within its framework. 

For us, dramatic literature is also only one element of a 
harmonious whole and does not retain any independent 
meaning. We calculate precisely (or strive to) the rule-governed 
mutual relationships of all elements, and subordinate them to 
the main thought that is our sole task and sole purpose. When 
I approach the production of a work, my major task is to show 
the spectator how we perceive and understand this work, the 
whole atmosphere and the whole world in which our heroes 
live. Therefore, it is fully justified, when the author does not 
show his milieu (as for example, in Jules Romain's Tri/adec), 
that I create the milieu, that is, I create variations on Romain's 
theme. I do it because I believe that a work for the stage that 
does not show the "air" in which the acting figures live is 
superfluous and does not exist at all for the theater. 

For the performances I select all kinds of dramatic means of 
expression (drama, comedy, operetta) according to what each 
stage moment foregrounds. Practically, we carry out this task 
in the following manner: when we agree on a specific play, I 
propose the script on the basis of which I create, together with 
my dramaturgical assistants, the text for the actor. Then I 
make a sketch of the actor's score, and everyone who 
participates in the staging — the composer, the painter, the 
technician — gets his precisely drawn task. As for the 
rehearsals, the work is conducted in the following manner: first 
of all, the actor has to master the text and the nielodies, he 
must perceive the main rhythm of the performance; and only 
then is he set in motion. On average, every play is rehearsed 
150 times, but never more than 250. That depends on how 
complicated the task is and how fast the actors master the 
image and the relations between all the parts. 

Such are the principles according to which we work and on 
which the theater has been built for the last ten years; and with 
this theater, we are launching a lengthy worldwide tour. 


My Work In the Moscow Yiddish Chamber Theater 

Marc Chagall 

Published, in Yiddish, in Di Yidishe "Velt: Monthly tor Literature, 
Criticism, Art, and Culture, Wilna (Kldskin). no. 2 (May 1928). 
A shorter version of this chapter, translated from a translation, can be 
found in Chagall's My Life. 

"Here are the walls," said Efros, "do what you want with 
them." It was an apartment, run-down, its tenants had fled. 
"See, here we will have benches for the audience, and over 
there, the stage." 

To tell you the truth, "over there," I didn't see anything but 
a vestige of a kitchen, and "here"? 

I shouted, "Down with the old theater that smells of garlic 
and sweat! Long live ..." And I dashed to the walls. On the 
ground lay sheets; workers and actors were crawling over them, 
through the renovated halls and corridors, among slivers, 
chisels, paints, sketches. 

Torn tatters of the Civil War — ration cards, various 
"queue-numbers" — lay around. I too wallowed on the 
ground. At moments, I enjoyed lying like this. At home they 
lay the dead on the ground. Often, people lie at their heads and 
cry. I too love, finally, to lie on the ground, to whisper into it 
my sorrow, my prayer. . . . 

I recalled my great-grandfather, who painted the synagogue 
in Mohilev, and I wept: why didn't he take me a hundred years 
ago at least as an apprentice? Isn't it a pity for him to lie in the 
Mohilev earth and be an advocate for me [in the World to 
Come}? Let him tell with what miracles he daubed with his 
brush in the shtetl Lyozne. Blow into me, my bearded 
grandfather, a few drops of Jewish truth! 

To have a bite, I sent the janitor Ephraim for milk and 
bread. The milk is no milk, the bread is no bread. The milk 
has water and starch; the bread has oats and tobacco-colored 
straw. Maybe it is real milk, or maybe — fresh from a 
revolutionary cow. Maybe Ephraim poured water into the jar, 
the bastard, he mixed something in and served it to me. Maybe 
somebody's white blood. ... I ate, drank, came to life. 
Ephraim, the representative of the workers and peasants, 
inspired me. If not for him, what would have happened? His 
nose, his poverty, his stupidity, his lice crawled from him to 
me — and back. He stood like this, smiling feverishly. He 
didn't know what to observe first, me or the paintings. Both 
of us looked ridiculous. Ephraim, where are you? Who will 
ever remember me? Maybe you are no more than a janitor, but 
sometimes by chance you stood at the box office and checked 
the tickets. Often I thought: they should have taken him on 
stage; didn't they take janitor Katz's wife? Her figure looked 
like a square yard of wet wood covered with snow. Carry the 
wood to the fifth floor and put it in your room. The water 
streams. . . . She screamed, protested during rehearsals like a 
pregnant mare. I don't wish on my enemies a glance at her 
breasts. Scary! 

Right behind the door — Granovskii's office. Before the 
theater is done, there is little work. The room is crowded. He 
lies in bed, under the bed wood shavings, he planes his body. 
Those days he was sick. 

"How is your health, Aleksei Mikhaylovich?" 

So he lies and smiles or scowls or curses. Often acrid words, 
of the male or female gender, fell on me or on the first comer. I 
don't know if Granovskii smiles now, but just like Ephraim's 
milk, his futile smiles console me. True, sometimes, I felt like 
tickling him, but I never dared to ask, "Do you love me?" 

I left Russia without it. 

For a long time, I had dreamed of work in the theater. Back 
in 1911, Tugendhol'd wrote somewhere that my objects are 
alive. I could, he said, paint psychological sets. I thought about 

Texts and Documents 1 49 

it. Indeed, in 1914, Tugenhol'd recommended to Tairov, the 
director of the Moscow Chamber Theater, that he invite me to 
paint Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. We met and 
parted in peace. The goblet was overflowing. Sitting in 
Vitebsk — commissaring away, planting art all over the 
province, multiplying student-enemies — I was overjoyed to 
get Granovskii's and Efros's invitation in 1918 to work in the 
newly opened Yiddish theater. Shall I introduce Efros to you? 
All of him legs. Neither noisy nor quiet, he is alive. Moving 
from right to left, up and down, always beaming with his 
eyeglasses and his beard, he is here and he is there, Efros is 
everywhere. We are bosom buddies and we see each other once 
every five years. I heard about Granovskii for the first time in 
Petrograd during the war. From time to time, as a pupil of 
Reinhardt, he produced spectacles with mass scenes. After 
Reinhardt's visit to Russia with Oedipi/s Rex, those mass scenes 
created a certain impression. At the same time, Granovskii 
produced spectacles using Jews of all kinds of professions 
whom he assembled from, everywhere. They were the ones who 
later created the studio of the Yiddish theater. 

Once I saw those plays, performed in Stanislavskii's realistic 
style. As I came to Moscow, I was agitated. I felt that, at least 
in the beginning, the love affair between me and Granovskii 
would not settle down so fast. I am a person who doubts 
everything under the sun, whereas Granovskii is sure of 
himself, and a bit ironic. But the main thing is that, so far, he 
is absolutely no Chagall. 

They suggested I do the wall paintings and the first 
production for the opening of the theater. Wow, I thought, 
here is an opportunity to turn the old Yiddish theater upside 
down — the Realism, Naturalism, Psychologism, and the 
pasted-on beards. I set to work. I hoped that at least a tew of 
the actors of the Yiddish Chamber Theater and of HaBima, 
where I was invited to do The Dybb/ik, would absorb the new 
art and would abandon the old ways. I made a sketch. On one 
wall, I intended to give a general direction introducing the 
audience to the new Yiddish People's Theater. The other walls 
and the ceiling represented klezmers, a wedding jester, women 
dancers, a Torah scribe, and a couple of lovers hovering over the 
scene, not far from various foods, bagels and fruit, set tables, all 
painted on friezes. Facing them — the stage with the actors. 
The work was hard; my contact with the work was settling 
down. Granovskii apparently lived slowly through a process of 
transformation from Reinhardt and Stanislavskii to something 
else. In my presence, Granovskii seemed to hover in other 
worlds. Sometimes, it seemed to me that 1 was disturbing him. 
Was it true? I don't know why he did not confide in me. And 1 
myself didn't dare to open serious discussions with him. The 
wall was breached by the actor Mikhoels, who was starving just 
like me. He would often come to me with bulging eyes and 
forehead, hair standing on end, a pug nose and thick lips — 
entirely majestic. 

He follows my thought, he warns me, and with the sharp 
edges of his hands and body he tries to grasp. It is hard to 
forget him. He watched my work, he begged to let him take 
the sketches home, he wanted to get into them, to get used to 
them, to understand. Some time later, Mikhoels joyfully 
announced to me, "You know, I studied your sketches, I 
understood. I changed my role entirely. Everybody looks at me 
and cannot understand what happened." 

I smiled. He smiled. Other actors quietly and carefully 
snuck up to me, to my canvases, began observing, finding out 
what kind of thing this is. Couldn't they also change? There 
was little material for costumes and decorations. The last day 
before the opening of the theater, they collected heaps of truly 
old, worn-out clothes for me. In the pockets, I found cigarette 
butts, dry bread crumbs. I painted the costumes fast. I couldn't 

even get out into the hall that evening for the first 
performance. I was all smeared with paint. A few minutes 
before the curtain rose, I ran onto the stage to patch up the 
color of several costumes, for I couldn't stand the "Realism." 
And suddenly a clash: Granovskii hangs up a plain, real towel! 
I sigh and scream, "A plain towel?! " 

"Who is the director here, me or you? " he answers. 

Oh, my poor heart, oh sweet father! 

I was invited to do the stage for The Dyhbiik in HaBima. I 
didn't know what to do. Those two theaters were at war with 
each other. But I couldn't not go to HaBima, where the actors 
didn't act but prayed and, poor souls, still idolized 
Stanislavskii's theater. 

If between me and Granovskii — as he himself put it — 
the love affair didn't work out, Vakhtangov (who had then 
directed only The Cricket on the Hearth) was a stranger to me. It 
will be very hard, I thought, to find a common language 
between the two of us. To an open declaration of love, I 
respond with love; but from hesitations and doubts, I walk 

For example, in 1922, they invited me lovingly to 
Stanislavskii's second art theater to stage together with the 
director Diky Synge's Playboy of the Western World. . . . 

I plunged into it body and soul, but the whole troupe 
declared a strike, "Incomprehensible." 

Then they invited somebody else and the play was a flop. 
Isn't it true? 

At the first rehearsal of The Dybbnk in HaBima, watching 
the troupe with Vakhtangov, I thought, "He is a Russian, a 
Georgian; we see each other for the first time. Embarrassed, we 
observe one another. Perhaps he sees in my eyes the chaos and 
confusion of the Orient. A hasty people, its art is 
incomprehensible, strange. . . . Why do 1 get upset, blush, and 
pierce him with my eyes?" 

I will pour into him a drop of poison; later he will recall it 
with me or behind my back. Others will come after me, who 
will repeat my words and sighs in a more accessible, smoother 
and clearer way. 

At the end, I ask Vakhtangov how he intends to conceive 
of The Dybbiik. He answers slowly that the only correct line is 

"I don't know," said I, "of such a direction for the reborn 
Yiddish theater. " Our ways part. 

And to Zemakh, "Even without me, you will stage my way. 
There is no other way." I went out into into the street. 

Back home in the children's colony in Malakhovka, I 
remembered my last meeting with An-ski,' at a soiree in 1915 at 
"Kalashnikov's Stock Market." He shook his gray head, kissed 
me, and said, "I have a play. The Dybbiik, and you're the only 
one who can carry it out. I thought of you." 

Ba'al-Makhshoves, who stood nearby, blazeci agreement 
with his eyeglasses and nodded his head. 

"So what shall I do? . . . What shall I do?" 

Anyway, I was told that a year later Vakhtangov sat for 
many hours at my projects, when he prepared The Dybbiik. And 
they invited someone else, as Zemakh told me, to make 
projects a la Chagall. And at Granovskii's, I hear, they over- 
Chagalled twentyfold. 

Thank God for that. 

Malakhovka 1921 — Paris 1928 

P .S. I just heard that the Muscovites are abroad. Regards to 

1. An-ski (S. Rapoporc, 1863-1920), scholar, folklorist, and writer, was author 
of the play The Dybbuk. 

1 50 Taxti unci Docinuaiti 

My First Meeting v/ith Solomon Mikhoels 

Aiair Chagall 

Published, in Yiddish, in Yidishe Kulrur: Monthly ot the Jewish 

World Culture Union, New York. vol. 6. no. li January 1944). 

My destiny brought me here to America; and, suddenly, after 
so many years, I see here my old friend Shloyme Mikhoels. He 
arrived with my new friend, the poet Itsik Fefer, bringing 
regards from our homeland. 

Since you have asked me to write something about 
Mikhoels, who is now celebrating his twenty-fifth year m the 
Yiddish theater, I remember with pleasure my first meeting 
with him. 

Those years when I first started working in the Yiddish 
theater rise up in my memory. 

In my dreams ... I transpose myself to my city. Thin young 
trees, bent, sighing as on a day of Tashlikh. 

In my youth, I walked like this through streets 
searching. . . . For what? 

Among my holidays, once upon a time, there was one great 
one: Sholem Aleichem came to read his writings in my city. I 
had no money for a ticket, but anyway I was angry at the small 
town guys who read Sholem Aleichem and laughed all the time 
just for the sake of laughing. I, on the contrary, didn't laugh so 
much and thought that Sholem Aleichem was a "Modernist" in 
art. Someday, I would show them. 

Some twelve years later (around 1919), a Yiddish theater 
studio from Petrograd, with an unknown director, arrived in 
our city. The director surely came to our city because his wife 
was from Vitebsk. The "studio" was a conglomeration of young 
and old amateurs. After the performance, I walked around 
glumly in the lobby of the city theater accompanied by my old 
teacher, the artist Yehuda Pen, who teased me with his 
misnaged smile — you don't know why or wherefore. . . . 
Finally I ran into the director himself. 

Aleksei Granovskii — tall, supple, blond. He looked a bit 
like a Christian. He would rarely open his mouth — maybe 
because of his bad teeth. He could speak with his mouth shut. 
His eyes smiled from an accidental, unknown pleasure that 
would alight on him like a fly. And he would look both at you 
and at somebody else on the side. . . . 

"I really need you, Chagall!" he says suddenly. "You know, I 
have a play . . . just for you. ..." 

For quite a while, I had thought it was time for me to get 
into Yiddish theater. Something had to "burst," to open up in 
me. But why wasn't I drawn to Granovskii as to somebody 
else? To whom? What for? Meanwhile, my friend Efros called 
me from Moscow to come paint the walls of the new Yiddish 
theater and design the sets for the first production of the 
theater to be founded there. 

I came to Moscow and found the producer and director 
Granovskii in bed. He was coquettishly playing sick and 
indulging himself in bed. He conducted conversations from his 
bed. I showed him the finished sketches I had brought from 
Vitebsk. As we talked, Mikhoels entered the room. Delicately, 
carefully. He said something very respectfully, listened 
attentively, and exited confidently, as the future theater soldier 
and general. 

Granovskii would make short, smiling remarks, which 
would be snatched up by the actors all around like a treasure 
and later lapped up in the long corridors. 

"You hear? — Granovskii said — You hear.'' — Granovskii 
laughs! Hush — Granovskii sleeps! A man sits in his room! He 
declares his love." . . . 

But my "affair " with him — he said — somehow doesn't 
hold together . . . ! 


I really didn't have much luck with directors. Not with 
Vakhtangov, who at first empathized neither with my art nor 
with my sketches for The Dybbuk in HaBima, and yet later 
asked to make it a la Chagall without me; nor with Tairov, who 
was still sick with Constructivism; nor with the Second Studio 
of the Moscow Art Theater, which was still drowning in 
psychological realism. . . . All of them, as well as others, asked 
me to make sketches, and later got scared of them. 

And here was Granovskii. Truly a seeker. He spoke only 
Russian in the Yiddish theater. He really did have talent, 
perhaps eclectic yet gracious; but he was straying on the paths 
of his German teacher Max Reinhardt with his theories of mass 
scenes, which were then in fashion. Granovskii searched 
gradually, not so much with the fervor of a Jewish soul, but as 
if through books. He wanted to liberate himself from the 
decorative German path, and kept looking for new Jewish 
forms, which began appearing here and there in the Jewish 
plastic world. 

It fell to me to be the first painter in the new Yiddish 
theater, but Granovskii didn't talk to me and got away with 
just a smile; I with my "character" was also silent. 

The rehearsals of Sholem Aleichem pieces, which were to 
open the new theater, were conducted on one side, and I was 
steeped in my work on the other side. 

But I harbored a very special hope for the magical 
Mikhoels. He didn't get underfoot like the others, walking 
back and forth in the long corridors of the small theater, which 
had just been rebuilt for a private home (later it moved to a 
bigger house). Everywhere pieces of wood, old newspapers, 
boards, sticks, and other rags were lying around. One actor 
carried a ration of black bread and another carried a bottle of 
bluish milk mixed with water into his room. And I sat on the 
ladder, painting the murals. The janitor Ephraim, a young wild 
animal, would bring me my ration of bread and milk and 
meanwhile laugh his fill over my paintings. So I would sit like 
this on the ladder, painting the wall. I wanted to paint myself 
into it, you, my own cities and towns. My Bella would come to 
"console" me with the little angel — Idochka — hardly two 
feet high. She would wander around below and look at Papa 
above — it's too high for her. Meanwhile, Mama would go 
learn Yiddish performance from her teacher Mikhoels. From 
afar I would hear her voice, "Bells are ringing. . . . " {From a 
poem by Peretz Markish.] And I would sit and think about the 
new art in the new theater, with no pasted-on beards scaring 
me like ghosts. I would think about those Purim-players, 
about that beggar with the green face and the sack on his back 
where he hides a Siddur, a herring, a piece of bread, and now I 
would see him at night, in the moonlight with his beard 
swinging like a tree in the city park. I wanted to paint him and 
take him to the stage. . . . 

When I let myself "think " like that, I was liable to lose my 
balance and fall from the ladder on top of my Idochka below. 
Silently I begged my distant dead relative — who, once upon a 
time painted, to his good fortune, the walls of a synagogue — 
to help me. I felt that, nearby, a young Jew was sitting and 
walking around — he could help me if he wanted to approach 
me first, open his mouth — perhaps he himself would become 
a different person. . . . 

That was young Mikhoels — strong though short, thin but 
sturdy, practical and dreamy; his logic merged with feeling, his 
Yiddish language sounded as if it came from Yiddish books. 
He could help, he would pull himself out and pull other actors, 
even the director himself along. 

Right at my first meeting with Mikhoels, I was amazed by 
that rare though still vague artistic striving and force, which 
one day will stumble onto logic and form, which — if you fiind 
them — take on various sounds, rhythms, and colors, although 

Texts and Documents 151 

it all may look both illogical and unreal. Those are forms that 
break old artistic conventions and promise something 
important m life. . . . 

I sat on the ladder in the auditorium for a long time 
surrounded by my murals and sketches for the Sholem 
Aleichem pieces. 

I locked the doors. Only rarely did Granovskii himself come 
in to discuss art and theater, and the forthcoming production. 
Once Mikhoels approached me with his mincing steps and said 
in measured, clearly-veiled words, "Mark Zakharovich, lend me 
your sketches. I want to study them. We cannot continue like 
this — you here and we there, everyone separate!" 

But indeed, I could sit like this for a long time, do my 
work, gather up my bundles and disappear. 

Mikhoels 's open and friendly approach was symbolic of a 
new type of Jewish man and artist at the beginning of the great 

Therefore, I cannot forget how, a few months later, I 
heard Mikhoels's long call from his distant room in the 
corridor, "Chagall, I un — der — stood! . . . Where are you? 
I understood. ..." 

And he came up to my ladder holding the sketches. 

"See, Chagall!" With joy in his eyes, covered with a smile 
reaching to his feet, he stood and moved with Sholem 
Aleichem's text beaming from his mouth. There was no doubt: 
Mikhoels had found something, found the true nuance and 
rhythm — that is, the form, the content, the new spirit, the 
new actor. It was a new world. 

I was happy and continued my work, which had to be 
finished, for soon the theater was to be opened. Jokingly, 
Granovskii said they would take me off the ladder and call 
two doctors to pacify me when they hung my big canvases on 
the walls. 

I was waiting — what would happen? The rehearsals of 
Sholem Aleichem's pieces continued in the old style. The 
familiar psychological realism. I imagined that Mikhoels alone 
would stand out f-rom the whole troupe, and the other actors 
along with Granovskii would be puzzled: what happened? they 
would ask themselves. How did Mikhoels suddenly break loose 
from the chain while we can't adapt to it? Once, I was sitting 
on my ladder, listening. I heard feet tramping on the other side 
of the wall. . . . Hands opened my door and all the actors 
suddenly entered the auditorium and said in chorus, "Chagall, 
Mikhoels has sent us to you. He has changed his role entirely. 
We asked him, 'What is this?' He says, 'I don't know, go to 
Chagall, he will explain.' So we came to you, tell us how and 
what to do, to be like Mikhoels." . . . 

I listened to them and grew sad. I jokingly wanted to sick 
my painted animals on the walls on them; let the klezmers 
"scare" them with a sudden playing and let them go back. I 
was "ashamed" of myself — look, I had been hanging before 
their eyes for a long time; but when Mikhoels changed his art, 
they came to me. Isn't there a director? 

I answered, "Mikhoels himself can explain a lot to you, 
much better than I can." 

What kind of art is it — Mikhoels's art? 

It is almost the same question that could have been asked in 
the past about the objectives and dreams of the new Jewish 
plastic art. 

Goldfaden, Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and others are for the 
actor what "nature" is for the artist. 

For the artist does not copy nature, but creates it facing it. 
Thus, both the artist and the actor create a new kind of nature. 
And only this means to have "respect" for the playwright as for 
nature. Otherwise, the artist creates mere photography, copy 
illustration, and not art. And if, at a certain moment, the 
theater merged its soul with Jewish plastic art, it would come 

to life, and show the world its soul. But if, however, the theater 
kept itself distant, it would remain "local," with its accidental 
actors' talents. I don't mean the accidental, "decorative" help 
of the invited artists. This is often a triviality. 

It's not enough to speak about the history of Yiddish 
theater from the point of view of worn-out literary 
psychological plays for reading and roles confined to their 
time. Of course we had this and still do have a dozen fine and 
great Yiddish actors — born talents. Fortunately, I have seen 
some of them at different times. Just as the history of art has 
had several fine greater and lesser artists. Yet those who 
perceived and merged with the whole period in art have had a 
deeper significance. Just as, recently, the French trends in 
plastic art; and as, among us Jews, the classics of the new 
Yiddish literature which created style — so is the new Yiddish 
actor in the theater. In the same way, Mikhoels strove to create 
a new Yiddish actor in the new Yiddish theater and a new 
theater style. And when you discover inside yourself the 
important meaning of the technical material, you also see the 
whole human being inside you. 

Thus Mikhoels opened the wide road on which he can 
deepen and broaden his theater art with his own power. 
Mikhoels is one of the rare happy people who arrived on such a 
road of art, understood it, and discovered himself 

Later I saw other actors of the Moscow Yiddish Theater, 
especially Zuskin, with a melody on his thick lips, walk the 
same road. 

Later I saw the director Vakhtangov sitting in the 
auditorium before my murals and, like one set ablaze, leading 
the troupe of HaBima with Rowina and others in The Dybbuk 
on the same road, though earlier he had been opposed. 

Studying art in such a way, Mikhoels grasped life. And, 
just as on the theater stage, so on the stage of life, he 
transferred an understanding and analysis of the problems of 
our life in that tragic and great time. For our time, too, is our 
material, we work and breathe with it in our art. 

This shows the absurdity of the opinion that there is a 
"pure" art, art for art's sake. On the contrary, art that is 
ostensibly called "pure" is very often dirty. 

And if Mikhoels, as he said, once learned from me, perhaps 
I must now learn from him. 

Then I myself wouldn't have been drowned in my doubt as 
in a pot of paint that paints the Jewish face and soul in a hue of 
mystery and sadness. 

1 52 Texts and Doc/tti/crits 

Mikhoels and Chagall Yosef Schein 

Published ni \. SlIjchi. Around the Moscow Yiddish Theater (in 

French). Paris: Lcs Editions Polyglottes. 1964. 

Mikhoels's success in the role of Menakhem-Mendel Yakenhoz 
was greatly clue to the painter Marc Chagall. Mikhoels used 
to tell of this collaboration with a wise, good-natured smile, 
"On the day ot the premiere, Chagall walked into my dressing 
room. After preparing his colors, he set to work. He divided my 
face into two parts. One he painted green, the other yellow (as 
they say, 'green and yellow' [pale, downcast]). Chagall lifted my 
right eyebrow two centimeters higher than the left. The wrin- 
kles around my nose and lips spread all over my face. These 
wrinkle lines highlighted Menakhem-Mendel's tragic lot. 

"I looked in the mirror and was convinced that the makeup 
created the dynamism and expressivity of the character. The 
artist continued working diligently. Suddenly his fingers 
remained hanging over mv face with a question mark. 
Something bothered him. He put a finger to my eye, took it 
back, and taking several steps back, observed me and added 
regretfully, 'Oh, Solomon, Solomon, if you didn't have your 
right eye, I could have clone so much.' " 

Mikhoels laughed but soon became pensive and serious. 

"My living eye, my Mikhoels eye, hindered Chagall from 
bringing Menakhem-Mendel's eye, which he saw and sensed so 
vividly. The reason apparently was in me. " 

The Artists of Granovskii's Theater Ahram Efros 
Exarpttd Jroiii an i^ssay ongDhdl) piiblishuL in R//ssian, by 
Iskusstvo, Moscow, vol. 4 {1928}. 

I. The years of war and the years of revolution occurred at 
a period of crisis for the Russian theater. Its development in 
those fifteen years was not organic, but indeed, at times, 
paradoxical; secondary elements played a greater role in it than 
basic ones. Its history is one of scenic accessories rather than of 
theatrical art, a history of the external formation of the stage; 
in many ways, it is just a history of stage designers. 

This is not contradicted at all by the fact that the Russian 
theater has now achieved a world name. In some European 
centers, it has even had a transforming influence. But should 
we console ourselves with the fact that the situation there was 
even worse? Western criticism, having recovered from the 
earlier excitement, now claims in revenge that we were only an 
exotic episode. As proof, they add that we were succeeded by a 
fashion for Negroes. This would have sounded devastating had 
we pronounced the word "Negroes" with the same accent. But 
you don't have to live through the Russian Revolution to give 
such words their true significance. For that, it is enough to be a 
hero of His Highness Vulgarity. We, however, are prepared to 
say this: Russian and Negro art were a fresh wind for the West. 

This does not change anything in the internal processes of 
our theater. I could have described the striking aspect of their 
appearance as the blush of the crisis. In the beginning, Russian 
theater was in a fever of decorationism, the role of the artist 
made disproportionately large. I am not afraid to assert (as my 
professional memory reminds me) that the premieres of 
1912— 17 were impressive mostly for the triumphs of their 
design rather than their actors. Later, after the October 
upheaval, came the era of Futurism. This happened not because 
Russian Futurism was belated, as the innovations of Western 
culture were usually late penetrating Russia. This time, Europe 
was hasty and we were very complacent. But in 1917, due to 
one of the most brilliant paracioxes of the Revolution, the 
Futurists became the power in art. They were part of the new 
government, delegated to the domain of art. Incidentally, there 
was no equality in the use of time. The Futurists did not fill 
their five years. The rage of their abstractions, shifts, and 
breaks evoked a reaction as early as 1920, which soon assumed 
the character of a violent outburst of simplification. The 
theater was, in Tolstoi's words, attracted to "gruel." Even the 
nihilism about decorations now saw its hour of triumph, only 
appeared on the stage under another name — common in 
theatrical practice! Such is the "Constructivism" of 
Meierkhol'd and his group: The stage was shamelessly bare, 
with only cranes, ropes, traps, hatchways, back walls, workers. 
It was pretty cynical, and enough to become fashionable and 
infect the theaters with pandemonium. Though it was soon 
over, Russian theater emerged exhausted: its decorations are 
now withered and melancholy. There is an artist on stage, but 
in essence there isn't. He is hardly active and almost invisible. 
In the best case he imitates himself. He is a veteran member of 
the staff and not a leader of the theater as he was in that decade 
between 1910 and 1920. The artist has reverted to the status of 
non-entity, while the actor, the ensemble, the acting, again 
stand on the first plane. I would be willing to consider this a 
sign of healthy growth were I not afraid that today's 
indifference to the artist would deteriorate to apathy. 

The artist, however, has his place in the scenic system of 
elements. It is not dominant, but it is not third-rate, and so 
our stage is still unbalanced. We now have much experience, 
but little tact. And in art, it seems that there is no greater sin. 
We have not recovered a sense of measure. The Russian stage of 
the period 1925-30 is still sick with disharmony. 

Texts ami Documents 153 

II. Granovskii began building his theater in the heat of the 
Revolution. This is natural, for there is no time more favorable 
for both creators and adventurers. The year 1919 was terrible. 
The period of Military Communism was at the zenith of crisis. 
Lenin's strategic genius was already looking for a detour. The 
Revolution exploded all possiblites. Russian culture swelled 
and burst in geysers of projects and schemes. In the theater, 
Meierkhol'd proclaimed his "October." Vakhtangov led the 
Third Studio onto twisting rails. Granovskii founded the 
Yiddish theater. 

To do so he couldn't simply put up minus signs and work 
with the method of negation, as did Meierkhol'd. Nor was 
Vakhtangov 's complex strategem available to him. Either 
solution presupposed the existence of a highly developed 
theatrical culture which had already exhausted its straight 
paths. Granovskii had to build on an empty space. He was his 
own ancestor. There was nothing behind his back. From time 
to time, itinerant theatrical groups of Jewish ne'er-do-wells, 
unfit for any other profession, had crisscrossed the Pale of 
Settlement. And in the 1910s, a sad shtetl symbolist, the Vilna 
Maeterlinckoid Peretz Hirshbeyn, had pulled before the 
puzzled Jewish petite bourgeoisie his infinite nose, his meager 
possessions, and his loving, naive, and unwitting parodies of 
the dramaturgy of European modernism. 

True, along with Granovskii there was HaBima, which 
radiated well-being. All the good fairies of aid and publicity 
surrounded it. It was supported by an amazing amalgam of 
Zionists, the Rabbinate, parts of the Communist Party, and 
those liberal anti-Semites who considered the language of the 
Bible the only thing bearable about the Jews. One of the first 
proofs of Granovskii 's real talent was that he circumvented 
HaBima, recognizing with some higher sense the parasitism of 
that phenomenon. HaBima lived with an alien mind, claiming 
for itself the wages of others. It cloaked the devices of Russian 
directors and the conventions of the Russian stage in a cover of 
the modernized ancient Hebrew speech. It was Stanislavskii's 
bastard child by an accidental Jewish mother. I remember one 
skit staged by HaBima in which one character addressed 
another character with the words, " Adon'i ha-sttidmt" — 
"Mr. Student!" Then and there, at the premiere, I thought that 
the whole nature of an obedient little theater was reflected in 
this Esperanto. Not in vain did it fear Jewish artists, who were 
young and entailed risk. HaBima instead preferred either to 
have a nameless nobody or to invite the experienced 
conventionality of Eastern decorations by Yakulov and even 
Miganajan. Only when the pleiade of Jewish artists, roaring 
and shimmering, went through Granovskii's stage, did 
HaBima stretch out its hand to them. Had I written memoirs, 
I could have told about my meeting with Zemakh, who tried 
to persuade me to influence Chagall, Al'tman, and Rabinovich 
to work for HaBima. It became dangerous to ignore them and 
they themselves did not show any desire to offer themselves. 
Incidentally, even for that step, an instruction from the side 
was necessary, which appeared in the person and authority of 
Vakhtangov, who came to HaBima to stage The Dyhb//k. 

Granovskii did not find his course from the start. Like a 
thoroughbred puppy beginning to walk, he at first stumbled 
comically in various corners. Now it is funny to read his 
pathetic declarations of 1919. The brochure proclaiming them 
has long since become a bibliographical rarity. For Granovskii, 
it is no longer dangerous. It contains many nouns written with 
capital letters and even more exclamation marks. In essence, 
the most important thing in it is the will to exist; the least 
significant are its theatrical dogmas. This was confirmed by the 
early productions, in which Granovskii stood shakily on his 
legs and often groped in a vacuum. The Prologue [by 
Mikhoels] worked with harlequins and colombines. Amnon and 

Tamar by Sholem Asch retailored the Bible for the nth time. 
The Blind by Maeterlinck came late by an immense decade. If 
that were to become the predominant direction, Granovskii's 
theater would merely have produced a more complicated 
variant of HaBima. But in fact, the change of formal elements 
was significant, and it became the foundation of Granovskii's 
further work. Jewish folk speech supplanted the bookish 
Hebraism; German theatrical methods deformed the Russian 
stage tradition. 

This, however, did not resolve the problem, did not yet 
create a Jewish theater. The essence was not here. These were 
only separate levers. An Archimedean point was needed. 

III. Granovskii selected his first designer in a manner typical of 
other Russian theaters at the time, not forseeing the role the 
artist would later play in realizing his projects. Furthermore, 
he apparently did not notice what was happening with artists 
on the Russian stage, where the exacerbated dialectics of their 
interrelationships took a tragic turn. In the decorational 
systems, entire historical layers were being shaken out in the 
open; yet Granovskii remained unconcerned. The Prologue was 
concocted with homemade means, which seemed simple as 
long as, for the protagonists — Harlequin, Pierrot and 
Colombine — there were uniforms granted them once and for 
all; and accordingly, the curtain was of course made like a 
chessboard — white and black squares. For Amnon and Tamar, 
he invited the assistant of a famous master, and for The Blind, 
simply the daughter of a famous father. Granovskii warmed his 
hands in the slanted rays of someone else's fame. When he 
decided finally to approach great people, he unexpectedly 
selected Dobuzhinskii. 

'What charms did he find in this master? Did he himself 
find him, or was he given him? I don't know; I think it was by 
accident. I don't believe Granovskii when he says that 
Dobuzhinskii understood him, because Granovskii didn't 
understand himself; more precisely, neither of them knew what 
Granovskii needed. It's not worth seeking lofty motives; in 
retrospect, all the reasons for historical events look very 
important; Stendhal and Tolstoi unmasked the writing of 
history. Be that as it may, Dobuzhinskii was accepted, and 
Granovskii was happy. But that meant handing over a matter 
requiring young inventiveness and fresh devices to a brittle 
second generation of "The World of Art." Thus, naively, on the 
way to his room, Granovskii stumbled into another. He 
regressed to the decorational experiments of the 1910s. 

Of that pleiade, Dobuzhinskii was not the most interesting; 
and, besides, his best days were far behind him. In 1919, when 
Granovskii suddenly offered him the chance to speak Yiddish, 
he was already in deep obscurity. He didn't know what to do 
with himself as his contemporaries didn't know what task to 
give him. He still wore the popularity he had once achieved 
through the productions of the Moscow Art Theater, but he 
was exhausted and couldn't always repeat himself faithfully. 
He only tried to preserve his cliches, but with worried jealousy, 
as one guards a hard-earned, yet insufficiently large property. 
Here his nature as a follower, not a leader, was evident. The 
elders of "The World of Art," who raised and influenced him 
were different — they lasted longer and risked more. 

Dobuzhinskii brought to Granovskii's stage his old- 
fashioned aestheticism, his love for the beauty of costumes, a 
subdued nostalgia for things and architectural forms, and the 
worn-out cliches of emblems and accessories — from the logo 
of the theater, with its stylized Hebrew letters and black-and- 
white contrasts of surfaces, to the stylized interiors and human 
figures used for Asch's Winter. His sketches have been 
preserved; you can see them at Granovskii's even now. But 
Dobuzhinskii didn't make any special effort, and the 

1 54 Texti and Documents 

handwriting of an artist betrays him as much as does the 
handwriting of a writer. Dobuzhinskii didn't take pains; his 
hand was guided by condescension. From this work, he 
expected "neither loud fame, nor persecutions" [Pushkin}. It 
was with only slight interest in Granovskii's project that he 
just as slightly helped his "young friend." 

I met him casually in the auditorium of the Yiddish 
Theater in Moscow, already at the time of Granovskii's brilliant 
success. I think they were performing The Sorceress. He was 
agitated, distributed compliments, and occasionally, as if 
unwittingly, dropped phrases about how good it was to work 
on such young stages. He was clearly waiting for an invitation. 
Obviously, he assumed that he, the godfather of the theater, 
could expect this as a matter of course. "We made believe we 
didn't understand. All roads to artists of his type were taboo. 
He departed, tense, officious, and angry. He didn't understand 
a thing about what took place in those years. 

IV. The theater moved to Moscow in the spring of 1920, 
which became the date of its second birth. The real history of 
the Yiddish theater begins here. Feverish, raging, roiling 
Moscow, headquarters of the revolutionary state, potential 
capital of the world, shaken daily, hourly, by the thrusts and 
explosions of events, the turns of the wheel, the breakdowns 
of the machinery, engulfed with typhus, covered with 
rumors, starving on rations, heating its ovens with fences and 
furniture — but constantly seething with a triumphant, 
historical effort of will, crystalizing the dim movements of the 
masses; emitting — "To everyone! Everyone! Everyone!" — 
protests, appeals, orders, slogans; thundering with the 
triumphant copper of hundreds of orchestras; in the weekdays 
of its new calendar, pouring the scarlet of its red banners over 
dense crowds marching through the streets; turning into 
reality the creative chimerae of dozens of directors, hundreds of 
artists, thousands of actors, bare-legged dancers, circus 
performers, dilettantes and adventurers; generously giving 
them money (though devalued), buildings (though falling 
apart), materials (though disintegrating) — Soviet Moscow 
ignited in Granovskii a decisive spark. He became himself He 
found the Archimedean point of the Yiddish theater. 

I am slightly afraid of the term I would use to characterize 
it, a term brown with the clotted mud of centuries, which you 
won't find in any other language but Russian. But it expresses 
what I need and I shall utter it. This word is — "Jewness" 
{_Zhidovstvo]. I am prepared to explain: is it a metaphor? Yes 
and no. The Russian Revolution accustomed us to posing a 
question about the social meaning of every artistic 
phenomenon. The Revolution has the right to demand it, for 
under the conditions of a social cataclysm, there are no neutral 
forces; art becomes the same accomplice or enemy as anything 
else. My term means that Granovskii's theater, like a screen 
blown up by light, reflected the appearance of the awakened 
and agitated masses of the Jewish people on the stage of 
revolution. The upturned daily life of shtetls and cities, with 
all their people and smells, flooded onto the stage. This was 
both the strength and the weakness of the theater. The old 
world was broken down, and Granovskii showed it with an 
immense expressiveness; but the new had not yet been found, 
and Granovskii didn't know how to anticipate it and present it 
prematurely. His theater was passive. This is not a reproach. 
Show me if it was different anywhere else! All other theaters 
of Soviet Russia were like this. 

But my word loses its metaphorical arbitrariness in the 
artistic-theatrical sense. Here it is literal. Granovskii 
accomplished an immense and positive revolution. Political 
radicalism is often combined with aesthetic reaction. The 
power of taste is protected more securely than the power of 

classes. Granovskii was one of the few who not only dared but 
could perform the upheaval. This "Jewyness," which the anti- 
Semitism of the pogroms mocked and tormented, which the 
Russified Jewish intelligentsia hushed up in confusion, which 
the Europeanizing progressives of university chairs haughtily 
suggested eliminating, which offended the ear, and stung the 
eye — in a word (here at last is a fitting case for a theological 
quotation!), "The stone that the builders refused is become the 
headstone of the corner." 

People should have howled with indignation. They didn't 
dare because, in the yard and at home, the Revolution 
performed. Visiting Granovskii, to the sacramental formula of 
petit bourgeois opposition of "What a country, what a 
government!" They added, "What licentiousness!" Afterward, 
they went to HaBima to view an aristocratic Jew, with biblical 
speech, pathetic gestures, and exotic costumes. Incidentally, 
some higher echelons of the Revolution preferred the same 
comeliness. Negatively, this was expressed in the fact that the 
people didn't go to Granovskii; positively, at the premieres of 
HaBima, you could see the Moscow Chief Rabbi Mazeh next to 
Politburo member Kamenev, nodding to each other in 

V. Granovskii really unfurled the "Yid" on the stage. He threw 
his audience the forms, rhythms, sounds, colors of the 
phenomenon which bore this nickname. Had it only been by 
imitation of shtetl daily life, by a naturalistic counterfeit of the 
countenance and life of the everyday Jew, even with a light 
admixture of a Jewish anecdote, that traditional consolation of 
both the friendly and hostile citizen — so be it! Ultimately, it 
would have been acceptable to everyone, and you could have 
pitied them, "Poor people. . . . How good it is that history, 
nevertheless, moves! " But Granovskii demanded something 
entirely different of the auditorium. He wanted the filth he 
unfolded to be accepted as an immense, self-sufficient value. 
Granovskii deepened its theatrical and artistic features to the 
level of an all-encompassing imperative, a universal 
generalization. From dross he made gold. On an evening of 
self-parody at the theater, the young actor Zuskin masterfully 
portrayed "a series of magical transformations" of a dignified 
Jew who found himself at Granovskii's and, at first, couldn't 
believe his ears, then turned scarlet, and finally dashed out of 
the auditorium screaming, "Ay, ay — what an anti-Semite!" 
As a matter of fact, the long hems of the capotas and fringed 
undergarments, the curls of beards and hair, the curves of noses 
and backs hovered over the space of the stage in Granovskii's 
theater, if one can say so, as absolutes. The singsong, gutteral 
speech, squeaking at the ends of sentences, entered the ear like 
a molded, finished, self-sufficient system. The scattered, 
hurried movements and gestures, interrupting each other, ran 
like a counterpoint of beads. Granovskii turned the features of 
small daily life into a theatrical device and a stage form. From 
this moment, the Yiddish theater came into being. 

But the key to the problem was not with the director but 
with the artists. Granovskii had to borrow. He didn't hesitate 
for he never suffered from stupidity. He caught the artist by 
the lapels and didn't let go of him until he attained his 
objective. The artist gave him the basic formulas for the 
images he sought, the first devices for their embodiment, and 
the initial stages of their development. And it was this that 
formed the contrast between the role of a designer on the 
general Russian stage and his later significance for the Yiddish 
stage. In the 1920s, when the masters of theater painting were 
only allowed into the auditorium condescendingly, as 
traditional guests at the premiere — and were, as much as 
possible, prevented from working on the stage as executors of 
the decorations — it was precisely then that the Jewish artist 

Texts atid Documents 155 

played a primary role in creating his national theater. This 
assertion will not surprise anyone; I mention the well-known 
phenomenon only in passing. 

Among the components that went into the construction of 
the Yiddish theater, painting was the most mature in its 
development and the most specific in its manifestations. It did 
not get entangled in elementary searches for its own artistic 
form the way that the tongue of Yiddish writers tripped over 
itself and formulated more jargon than Yiddish. Neither did it 
have such quantities of raw ethnographic slang as did the 
works of Jewish composers, who were satisfied with copying 
folksongs and melodies that they peppered only lightly with 
modernism. Painting and graphics gave Granovskii a ready- 
made solution for conquering the auditorium. The entire 
group of Jewish painters worked dynamically and 
triumphantly, creating work that was saturated with 
personalities, rich in nuances, and unquestionably 
contemporary in its formal expressiveness. In every trend of 
European and Russian art, in every school, it had leading 

True, this diapason was too broad. Danger was inherent in 
it. You had to select correctly. The story of Dobuzhinskii 
might have been repeated. There were all sorts of people and 
programs. Granovskii had to understand that in the artistic 
revolution, as in the social revolution, you always have to steer 
the most extreme course; the resultant force of intentions and 
possibilities will sort itself out. The Yiddish stage needed the 
most "Jewy," the most contemporary, the most unusual, the 
most difficult of all artists. And so I mentioned Chagall's name 
to Granovskii. Granovskii's always-sleepy eyes opened with a 
start and rounded like the eyes of an owl at the sight of meat. 
Next morning, Chagall was summoned and invited to work on 
Sholem Aleichem's miniatures. This was the first production of 
the Moscow period. Chagall began a dynasty of artist- 

VI. He had just returned Irom Vitebsk, where he had been 
Commissar of Art, but, fed up with power, had abdicated this 
lofty title. At least, that's his story. The truth was that he was 
deposed by the Suprematist Malevich, who took over Chagall's 
students and usurped the art school. He accused Chagall of 
being moderate, and of being just a neo-realist, still entangled 
in depicting some objects and figures, when truly 
revolutionary art is objectless. The students believed in 
revolution and found artistic moderation insufferable. Chagall 
tried to make some speeches in his own defence, but they were 
confused and almost inarticulate. Malevich answered with 
heavy, strong, and crushing words. Suprematism was 
pronounced the heresy of revolution. Chagall had to leave for 
(I almost wrote "flee to") Moscow. He didn't know what to do 
and spent the time telling stories about his experience as 
commissar in Vitebsk and about the intrigues of the 
Suprematists. He loved to recollect the time when, on 
revolutionary holidays, a banner waved above the school 
depicting a man on a green horse and the inscription, "Chagall 
— to Vitebsk." The students still admired him and covered all 
fences and street signs that had survived the Revolution with 
Chagallian cows and pigs, legs turned down and legs turned 
up. Malevich, after all, was just a dishonorable intrigant, 
whereas he, Chagall, was born in Vitebsk, and knew well what 
kind of art Vitebsk and the Russian Revolution needed. 

Meanwhile, he quickly consoled himself with work in the 
Yiddish theater. He set us no conditions, but also stubbornly 
refused to accept any instructions. We abandoned ourselves to 
God's will. Chagall never left the small auditorium on 
Chernyshevskii Lane. He locked all doors; Granovskii and I 
were the only ones allowed in, after a carping and suspicious 

interrogation from inside as from the guard of a gunpowder 
cellar; in addition, at fixed hours, he was served food through a 
crack in the half-open door. This was not simple intoxication 
with work; he was truly possessed. Joyfully and boundlessly, he 
bled paintings, images, and forms. Immediately he felt 
crowded on the few meters of our stage. He announced that, 
along with the decorations, he would paint "a Jewish panel" on 
the big wall of the auditorium; then he moved over to the 
small wall, then to the spaces between the windows, and finally 
to the ceiling. The whole hall was Chagallized. The audience 
came as much to be perplexed by this amazing cycle of Jewish 
frescoes as to see Sholem Aleichem's skits. They were truly 
shaken. I often had to appear prior to the performance with 
some introductory remarks, explaining what kind of thing it 
was and why it was needed. 

I talked a lot about leftist art and Chagall, and little about 
the theater. That was natural. Today we can admit that Chagall 
forced us to buy the Jewish form of scenic imagery at a high 
price. He had no theatrical blood in him. He continued doing 
his own drawings and paintings, not drafts of decoration and 
costume designs. On the contrary, he turned the actors and the 
production into categories of plastic art. He did not do actual 
sets, but simply panels, processing them with various textures, 
meticulously and in detail, as if the spectator would stand 
before them at a distance of several feet, as he stands in an 
exhibition, and appreciate, almost touching, the beauty and 
subtlety of this colorful field plowed up by Chagall. He did not 
want to hear about a third dimension, about the depth of the 
stage. Instead, he positioned all his decorations in parallel 
planes, along the apron, as he was accustomed to placing his 
paintings on walls or easels. The objects were painted with 
Chagallian foreshortening, with his own perspective, which did 
not consider any perspective of the stage. The spectators saw 
many perspectives; painted objects were contrasted with real 
objects; Chagall hated real objects as illegitimate disturbers of 
his cosmos and furiously hurled them off the stage; with the 
same rage, he painted over — one might say plastered with 
color — that indispensable minimum of objects. With his own 
hands, he painted every costume, turning it into a complex 
combination of blots, stripes, dots, and scattering over them 
various muzzles, animals, and doodles. He obviously 
considered the spectator a fly, which would soar out of its chair, 
sit on Mikhoels's hat [of Reb Alter} and observe with the 
thousand tiny crystals of its fly's eye what he, Chagall, had 
conjured up there. He did not look for types or images — he 
simply took them from his paintings. 

Of course, under these conditions, the wholeness of the 
spectator's impression was complete. When the curtain rose, 
Chagall's wall panels and the decorations with the actors on the 
stage simply mirrored each other. But the nature of this 
ensemble was so untheatrical that one might have asked, why 
turn off the light in the auditorium, and why do these 
Chagallian beings move and speak on the stage rather than 
stand unmoving and silent as on his canvases? 

Ultimately, the Sholem Aleichem Evening was conducted, as 
it were, in the form of Chagall paintings come to life. The best 
places were those in which Granovskii executed his system of 
"dots" and the actors froze in mid-movement and gesture, from 
one moment to the next. The narrative line was turned into an 
assembly of dots. One needed a marvelous finesse, with which 
Mikhoels was endowed, to unify in the role of Reb Alter 
Chagall's static costumes and images with the unfolding of 
speech and action. The spectacle was built on compromise and 
tottered from side to side. The thick, invincible Chagallian 
Jewishness conquered the stage, but the stage was enslaved and 
not engaged in participation. 

We had to break through to the spectacle over Chagall's 

1 56 Taxts ctnd Dociimmts 

dead body, as ir were. He was upset by everything that was 
done to make the theater a theater. He cried real, hot, childish 
tears when rows of chairs were placed in the hall with his 
frescoes. He claimed, "These heathen Jews will obstruct my 
art, they will rub their thick backs and greasy hair on it." To 
no avail did Granovskii and I, as friends, curse him as an idiot; 
he continued wailing and whining. He attacked workers who 
carried his handmade sets, claiming that they deliberately 
scratched them. On the day of the premiere, just before 
Mikhoels's entrance on the stage, he clutched the actor's 
shoulder and frenziedly thrust his brush at him as at a 
mannequin, daubing dots on his costume and painting tiny 
birds and pigs no opera glass could observe on his vizored cap, 
despite repeated, anxious summonses to the stage and 
Mikhoels's curt pleas — and again Chagall cried and lamented 
when we ripped the actor out of his hands by force and shoved 
him onto the stage. 

Poor, dear Chagall! He, of course, considered us tyrants and 
himself a martyr. He was so deeply convinced of it that, ever 
since, for eight years, he never touched the theater again. He 
never understood that he was the clear and indisputable victor, 
and that, in the end, the young Yiddish theater had stuggled 
because of this victory. 

May 1928 

The Moscow State Yiddish Theater 

Osip Mandelshtarii 

Originally published, in Russian, in Vechernaia Krasnaia Gazeta, 
Leningrad. August 10, 1926. The review was included in 
Mandelshtam's posthumously published CoWtcttd Works (vol. ^) 
with the title "Mikhoels. " 

On the wooden walkways of an unsightly Byelorussian 
shtetl — a big village with a brick factory, a beer hall, front 
yards, and cranes — shuffled a strange figure with long hems, 
made of an entirely different dough from the whole landscape. 
Through the window of a train, I watched that solitary 
pedestrian move like a black cockroach between the little 
houses, among the splashing mud, with splayed arms; and 
golden yellow glimmered the black hems of his coat. In his 
movements, there was such an estrangement from the whole 
situation and, at the same time, such knowledge of the road, as 
if he had to run and to and fro, like a wind-up toy. 

Sure, big deal, never seen: a Jew with long hems on a 
village street. However, I remember well the figure of the 
running Rebbe because, without him, that whole modest 
landscape lacked justification. The coincidence which that very 
moment pushed into the street this crazy, charmingly absurd, 
endlessly refined, porcelain pedestrian helped me understand 
the impression of the State Jewish Theater, which I recently 
saw for the first time. 

Yes, a short while before that, on a Kiev street, I was ready 
to approach a similar respectable bearded man and ask him, 
"Didn't Al'tman do your costume?" I would have asked just 
like that, with no mockery, quite sincerely: in my head, the 
realms grew confused. . . . 

How fortunate is Granovskii! It's enough for him to 
assemble two or three synagogue beadles with a cantor, 
summon a matchmaker-Shadkhan, catch in the street an 
elderly salesman, and a spectacle is ready and, in essence, even 
Al'tman is superfluous. 

This paradoxical theater, which, according to some critics 
as profound as Dobrolubov, declared war on the Jewish petite 
bourgeoisie, and which exists only to eradicate prejudices and 
superstitions, loses its head, gets drunk like a woman when it 
sees a Jew, and immediately pulls him into its workshop, to the 
porcelain factory, scalds and tempers him into a marvelous 
biscuit, a painted statuette, a green shadkhan-gT&sshopper, 
brown musicians of Rabichev's Jewish wedding, bankers with 
shaved layered pates, dancing like virtuous girls, holding 
hands, in a circle. 

The plastic fame and force of the Jews consist of having 
worked out and borne through the centuries a sense of form 
and movement, which has all the traits of a fashion immutable 
for millennia. I am speaking not of the cut of their clothes, 
which changes, and which we need not value (it doesn't even 
occur to me to justify the ghetto or the shtetl style 
aesthetically); I'm talking of the internal plasticity of the 
ghetto, of that immense artistic force which outlives its 
destruction, and will finally flourish only when the ghetto is 

"Violins accompany the wedding dance. Mikhoels 
approaches the footlights and, stealthily, with the careful 
movements of a fawn, listens to the music in a minor key. This 
is a fawn who has found himself at a Jewish wedding, hesitant, 
not yet drunk, but already stimulated by the cat-music of a 
Jewish minuet. This moment of hesitation is perhaps more 
expressive than the whole subsequent dance. Tapping on the 
spot, intoxication comes, a light intoxication from two or three 
drinks of grape wine, but this is enough to turn the head of a 
Jew: the Jewish Dionysius is undemanding and immediately 
produces joy. 

Texts and Documents 157 

During the dance, Mikhoels's face assumes an expression of 
wise weariness and sad exaltation, as if the mask of the Jewish 
people, approaching antiquity, is almost identical with it. 

Here the dancing Jew is like the leader of an ancient chorus. 
The whole force of Judaism, the rhythm of the abstract, 
dancing thought, the whole dignity of the dance, whose only 
impetus is ultimately empathy with the earth — all this is 
absorbed in the trembling hands, the vibration ot his thinking 
fingers, inspired like articulated speech. 

Mikhoels is the epitome of national Jewish dandyism — 
the dancing Mikhoels, the tailor Soroker, a forty-year-old child, 
a blessed shlimazel, a wise and gentle tailor. And yesterday, on 
the same stage, Anglicized jockey ragamuffins, on tall girl- 
dancers, patriarchs drinking tea in the clouds, like elders on a 
porch in Homel. 

Jev^ish Luck Viktor Shklovsky 

This rei'/eiv of the ip2^ film Jewish Luck (Menakhem-Mendel), u'hich 
was directed by Granovskii and used the sets and actors of the Yiddish 
Theater, ivas pt/hlished, in Russian, in Evreiskoe Schast'e. Moscow. 
Kino-petshat' (Kino-lzdatelstvo RSFSR). 192^. 

What does a Jew do? He spins around. — This is itom Jewish 
Luck. It was very hard for Jews to spin around. Small towns, 
filled with houses and children. Huts with dilapidated roofs. 
Their own soil only in the cemetery. And that's where they 
grazed their goats. They lived on air, and that wasn't fresh 
either. Jews, separated from productive work, from land and 
factories, a whole nation living in the cracks and interstices of 
life. Petty buying and selling, shaving, mending dresses. The 
lowest wages in the world. So dense that new buildings weren't 
constructed because there was nowhere to go during the 
construction. On the old house they patched up a new one, a 
wall on top of a wall, a roof above a roof. — Mice have such a 
disease when their tails grow into each other in the cellar. Thus 
houses and people grow into each other in Jewish shtetls. 
Stifling, closed everyday life, and on the Sabbath, wires encircle 
the whole town. All around alien fields and alien, hostile 
people. People in a prison create their own language. The 
downtrodden are sharp-witted. The best Jewish anecdotes are 
created by Jews about themselves. One of those anecdotes is 
Sholem Aleichem's story about a man of air, a destitute pauper, 
a failing and indefatigable tradesman, insurance agent and — 
finally — matchmaker. Jews say of such people, "He doesn't 
walk by himself — his guts carry him." — For us, Jewish Luck 
is almost a historical film. Such Jewish life no longer exists. 
The Civil War hit them hard. Pogroms rolled through the 
shtetl. The very places where the pasted-together huts stood 
were plowed up. Hunger came in the wake of the pogroms. In 
Kherson, orthodox Jews, fearing they would die in the general 
devastation and not be buried by the rules, came to the 
cemetery and lined up for death. The Revolution was a hulling 
mill for the Jews. The old closed world was shattered. Everyday 
life is finished. Small trade, middleman trade, was crushed 
under the pressure of state capitalism and cooperatives. In the 
new tight life there was no room to spin around. But the 
Revolution removed all limitations from the Jews and 
destroyed the most essential trait of the Jews — the Pale of 
Settlement. The plants and factories were opened for Jewish 
workers. The proletarian supplanted the artisan. And instead of 
the right to graze a goat in a cemetery, Jews got the right to 
the land. Now, in Byelorussia and at the Azov Sea, an immense 
work to grant land to the Jews is proceeding. Kolkhozes 
emerge, the soil is irrigated. Now it is clear that Zionism, a 
Jewish state in Palestine, will produce only a southern resort 
for rich Jews. A patriotic resort with oranges. The Jewish 
colonies at the Azov Sea get 1,620,000 acres. In the Soviet 
state, a new autonomous district will be adcled, perhaps a new 
republic. — No need to pity the torn umbrella of Menakhem- 
Mendel, no need to look for romanticism in the past, in the 
grown-together tails of a mouse cellar. But we need to know 
the old daily life. Director Granovskii has succeeded in 
reconstructing much of the past in his film. The film is 
theatrical. Granovskii doesn't want to sell his "theatrical 
sword." But in film, you don't need swords, you need to know 
the technique. Therefore, the film has a new handwriting for 
the cinema. There is real everyday life. The artist Natan 
Al'tman has treated his task very carefully. Natan Al'tman is a 
person with great national culture, a person with his own face. 
But the film, as I said, is a historical work, in it "thus it was" is 
more important than "thus I want it to be." Al'tman 
constructed the Jewish rooms well; he did not overburden 
them with details, he hid his work in the film as the 

158 Texts and Documents 

illuminator hides his work. Light in a film should shed light 
and not appear as a separate item in the program. The titles in 
the film are made by Isaac Babel. They exploit the material of 
the film well and are closely connected with the actors. They 
are not titles but conversations. They are speech. They endow 
the film with the charm of the human voice. 

Five Years of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater 

(1919-1924) M. Litvakov 

Excerpted from an essay, in Russian, published in Moscow in 1924 by 

Shul iin bukh. 

I. Theater and Revolution. 

In quiet epochs all arts, including art of the theater, lead a 
quiet life. They digest and transform the achievements of the 
past epoch o{ Sturm mid Drang into facts of daily life. They 
express the tempos and rhythms of the inertia that has set in. 
But revolutionary epochs, toppling all previous foundations of 
life, also shake up the arts. And what art is as sensitive to social 
upheavals as the art of the theater? For theater is the most 
social of all arts; theater lives only in an audience, and not only 
does the actor infect the auditorium, but the auditorium also 
has a powerful impact on the actor and on the spectacle as a 

Why is it that, in Moscow, this center of world revolution, 
we feel such an indescribable theatrical chaos, a real world- 
confusion, a noisy brouhaha? The continuous destruction of old 
theater foundations and the painful search for new ones, the 
feverish toppling of old gods and the wild pursuit of new 
idols? Where does it come from? 

If it had remained in the hands of the famous caste of art- 
priests, everything would have stayed as it was, with no 
changes. Because there is no more moldy, organically 
conservative social stratum than this stratum of narcissistic 
Dalai Lamas. But the spectator has changed. The spectator, the 
audience — with no distinction of class or social group — that 
emerged from the mangle of the great imperialist war and 
that, to this day, lives under the pressure of the workers' 
revolution — in short, the public of the epoch of the October 
Revolution and the Comintern — conceals in its soul, 
consciously or not, powderkegs of storm-alarms and dynamic 
unrest. Bourgeois idylls a la The Cricket on the Hearth don't get 
into their heads, and the boring sighs of pre-Revolutionary 
petit bourgeois in various "cherry orchards" cannot calm their 
firestorm yearning. 

But a completely unexpected bankruptcy occurred, not only 
with respect to the content of the theatrical spectacle, but also 
with respect to form. This creeping realistic description of 
daily life we are sick of, this antiquated loyalty to forgotten 
details — all this smacks of a museum of antiquities and not of 
the burgeoning art of throbbing contemporaneity. Naturally, to 
the extent that, in such a theater, we feel vigorous mastery, 
even of the old style, we may watch the spectacle with some 
enjoyment: dear past. And those social groups who look in 
various ways for such sanctuaries where the thunder of the 
impetuous revolution cannot reach would give such theaters 
top priority. 

But here art absolutely ceases being a moving force of the 
cultural development of the masses; it is transformed into a 
store of "sublime swindle" (Pushkin), which is dearer to some 
than a "wealth of mundane truths. " 

Other theaters, the theaters of today, which strive to keep 
pace with the Revolution and consider themselves only a 
segment of its immense front, strive to expose this "wealth of 
mundane truths." They aim at exploding the hidden 
powderkegs of unrest in the soul of the spectator, they lift him 
forcibly on the waves of dynamic tempos, leaping rhythms, 
dazzling colors, and dizzying movements. 

One of the most conspicuous theaters of this type — and 
such theaters are scarce even in the Soviet Union — is the State 
Yiddish Chamber Theater. 

2. Theater and Comedians of Revolutionary Joy. 

For many years, pious intellectuals and anxious caretakers of 

Texts and Documents 1 59 

the spirit have been preparing to build a "serious" Yiddish 
theater. What did they mean by "serious" theater? Lengthy 
exphcations of literature on the stage through exhaustive 
emoting by the actors. In the old Yiddish theater, they denied 
not only its latter-day popular smut, but also what remained 
intact: the mobility, the popular trumpeting, the harlequinade, 
the ecstasy of the whole body. The ideal was at least some 
reflection of the Moscow Art Theater, where the twisted soul of 
the Russian intelligentsia would be transformed into the 
Jewish piety of a small town grandson of the Besht — in short, 
a kind of Yiddishist HaBima. 

But instead they got the State Yiddish Chamber Theater! 

And revolution, according to the petit-bourgeois caretakers 
of the spirit, is just asceticism, a kind of monkish withdrawal 
from the world. Poverty with no light or color, nakedness of 
body, and emptiness of soul. 

But it turns out that the masses who make the revolution 
are much richer in life, light, colors, movement, and joy than 
the peripheral people-providers, for, precisely because they 
possess all that, can they go to revolution and triumph! 

And the State Yiddish Theater came precisely as one 
expression of that mass ecstasy. It is the embodiment of 
"serving with joy" — serving art with joy, with impetus. And 
the ecstasy does not lie hidden in the soul, but gushes from 
every limb of the body. 

A treasure of light, a wealth of colors, a chasm ol 
movement, a richness of rhythms — this is what the Yiddish 
Chamber Theater has discovered for the Jewish working 
masses. A liberated body which is the organic collaborator of 
the liberated spirit. Both serve the red virgin soil of revolution, 
and are hostile to all vestiges of Jewishy junk. The Jewish 
grimace, which they tried for generations to transform into an 
idly Jewishy feature, the Jewish gesture, which was supposed 
to remain forever godly pious — here they have become new, 
free, sharp gestures of an epoch of "iron and concrete." 

The ecstasy in the Yiddish Chamber Theater is not 
arbitrary, not spontaneous, but regulated, planned. For we live 
in an epoch when the spontaneous thrust of the masses is 
regulated by the genius of collective rationality — through the 
avant-garde of the working class, the Communist Party, 
planned economy, rationalized working processes. And as in 
political-economic life in general, so in the life of art is ecstasy 
not weakened by the progressive consciousness and calculation, 
but rather is strengthened and attains its greatest triumphs. An 
expression of that is the State Yiddish Chamber Theater. 

In the Sholetn Alekhem Evening, we see the mathematical 
fantastic. The generally known and almost banal Menakhem- 
Mendel is elevated by the artist Mikhoels to the level of an 
unforgettable art symbol; for the first time, an artistic, scenic 
embodiment is found for the popular- Yiddish Don Quixote, 
Reb Alter. 

In Uriel Accosta, the unrest of Uriel's free thought merges 
wonderfully with the unrest of Al'tman's decorations; the 
enraged narrowness of the representatives of religious 
fanaticism is amazingly framed in Al'tman's ornate 
mannequins. An artistic-rational approach to the tragedy of the 
tottering free thought of the late Middle Ages was found here. 

Not to mention The Sorceress\ Such a plethora of colors, a 
treasure of movements, wealth of sounds — Jewish art has 
never before provided such a dizzying rush of folk masses, 
liberated from their Jewishy Diaspora essence. 

Here an immense and joyous theatrical explosion was 
brought together, aiming its full blade against the social and 
the spiritual, and especially against artistic junk. 

Mathematical conspicuousness of gesture, precisely 
calculated movements, with a rapid tempo, laying bare the 
skeleton of the theatrical narrative in the resonating interplay 

of sets and music (where the necessity of music is dictated by 
the organic logic of the scenic intention), white-hot rhythm, 
dazzling collaborations of light, provocative expressiveness of 
color, multifunctionality and vividness in every inch of the 
stage boards — such are the principle features of any spectacle 
of the Yiddish Chamber Theater. And it is all dominated by 
the liberated body and the firm and elastic spirit of the actor. 

What is primary in the Chamber Theater — the whole 
ensemble or the individual comedian? It is hard to tell. One 
thing is clear — the Yiddish Chamber Theater created the new, 
free, joyous, agile Jewish comedian, the comedian of the 
liberated proletariat. It has also created a joyous ensemble — 
a new kapelye [orchestra], and "a Kapelye is more than a 
minyan" — according to one of Peretz's characters. 

3. Theater of Organized Rationality. 

Therefore, the State Yiddish Chamber Theater has many foes 
and even more friends. Each new production provokes, on the 
one hand, excited recognition, and, on the other hand, wild 
rage. But soon, many of the most "outraged" begin to attend 
the loathsome spectacle, declaring in embarrassment that "you 
have to get used to it." 

This in itself shows that the Yiddish Chamber Theater is 
not just a theater where "the actor does an act, and the 
spectator casts a glance," but one of the institutions that does 
battle in the domain of art in Moscow, and, indeed, in the 
entire Soviet Union. 

The success and triumph of the State Yiddish Chamber 
Theater was determined by its artistic essence. 

First, this is the first and so far the only Yiddish theater 
with mastery of a European theater style. Before the State 
Yiddish Chamber Theater, Jewishy "culture-providers" only 
dreamed of a "real" Yiddish theater; small-town Talmudists, 
however, took great pains to realize this dream, through hair- 
splitting arguments about the theories and methods of an art 
theater. And here in the Chamber Theater true theatrical 
mastery came and declared, "I am!" And, though unexpected, 
it came full oi joie de I'ivre, young, confident, like all the 
creations of October. 

A new director and a new comedian arrived for whom 
"Jewishness" — that is, nationalistic smugness and folkloristic 
shmaltz — was totally alien. The key to the theatrical re- 
creation of Jewish folklore was found for the first time by the 
State Yiddish Chamber Theater — first in its performance of 
Sholem Aleichem's miniatures and then in the other works, 
especially in The Sorceress. 

But the chief property of the Yiddish Chamber Theater, 
which attracts more attention than any other, I would say, is 
its "planned creation," or the rationalist methods of its artistic 

The Yiddish Chamber Theater completely rejects the 
method of "experiencing," the cult of emotionality. Above the 
"kingdom of necessity" — above the spontaneous force of 
unregulated feelings — it puts the "kingdom of freedom " — 
the organized and determining understanding. Hence, in the 
productions of the Yiddish Chamber Theater, mathematical 
formulas were transformed into intuitive revelations, which, 
after the fact, when the habituated spectator begins to grasp 
them, appear as intuitive revelations, distinguished by the 
surprising obviousness of mathematical formulas. 

This explains the interesting and "sensational" gestures of 
the Yiddish Chamber Theater, its groupings and pauses, which 
seem outlandish at first glance. The Sholem Aleichem spectacle 
initially provoked embarrassment, anger, even rage, and now it 
is already a canonized spectacle; many of the former protestors 
even tend to think that the theater condescended to them and 
"softened" its gestures. The same holds for Uriel Accosta, 

1 60 Texts and Doinments 

perhaps the best work of the Yiddish ChamLx-r Theater: in 
Uriel, theatrical mastery, based on rationahst ecstasy or ecstatic 
rationahsm, achieves a high level and tension. 

And even in The Sorceress, m this most dynamic spectacle, 
tilled with light, dance, brouhaha, notwithstanding the 
external emotionality of the staging and acting, there is a 
rigorous calculation and mathematical forging: precisely 
because of that, the emotional saturation is achieved, and not 
vice versa. 

The same is true for Sholem Aleichem's Great Prize and 
other productions, from the most monumental to the smallest 
comedian skits, such as Three Dots and even Warsaw Thieves and 
Comedians' Carnival. 

And not only is this theater inspired by the artists, but it 
also inspires them, mobilizing each of them for a specific work 
in the style and spirit of the given artist, yet still within the 
rigorous plan of the given piece. For Sholem Aleichem's 
sleepwalking characters, who see raging dreams in a quite 
calculated "reality," the theater found Chagall, who, for his 
part, found the Yiddish Chamber Theater. Such an ideal 
merger of a theater and an artist is rarely achieved. Sholem 
Aleichem's characters, embodied by the artists on the stage of 
the Yiddish Chamber Theater, in the costumes and framework 
of Chagall's designs, which, despite their fantastic mood, are 
structured rationally and calculated mathematically — this is a 
beautiful theatrical spectacle, which gives the Jewish spectator 
a new literary Sholem Aleichem. The same wonderful accord 
between the creative intention of the theater and its decorative 
realization by an artist is achieved in Uriel Accosta. In his 
design, the artist Al'tman expresses almost with genius the 
unrest of the struggling free thought in the context of religious 
fanaticism, indicated through a world of pompous 
mannequins. Al'tman's rationalist thinginess best matches 
Granovskii's methods. 

And in The Sorceress, the bright, vivacious, Chagallized 
realism of I. Rabinovich proved itself a real revelation for the 
tasks of the Yiddish Chamber Theater. 

And then comes the ideological revolutionary aspect of the 
theater: the merciless revelation of the Jewish lifestyle, and the 
constant exposure of the flaccidity of the past, the theater's 
biting, life-loving mockery of the elements of the religious- 
nationalistic milieu, its striving to October. 

All this makes the State Yiddish Chamber Theater one of 
the first-rate contemporary European theaters, beloved and 
dear to the Jewish worker. . . . 

4. Theater and Yiddish Mass Culture. 

[Before October,] literature held the hegemony in our cultural 
creativity. It led, stimulated, organized, and clustered the 
forces in all other areas of art. And its creativity itself 
proceeded in the spirit of that epoch — in the spirit of internal 
Jewish narrowness. In a certain sense, Yiddish literature did 
not completely withstand the pressure of October, and now it 
struggles consciously to overcome the crisis stemming from the 
previous, unfinished epoch. 

Our theater did not have the rich, though often difficult, 
traditions of literature — therefore, it was easier for the theater 
to absorb the thrust of October. So the Yiddish Chamber 
Theater was created. 

The Chamber Theater did indeed emerge from the soil of 
massive accumulated creative energy, yet its impulse still came 
from outside. Dimensions never before seen in the Jewish 
milieu, rhythms, and tempos never before heard or felt, 
achievements never before experienced were the triumphs of 
this theater. For the first time in the history of Yiddish culture 
in general and of our mass culture in particular, there was a 
cultural creation that measured itself by — and was aligned 

with — the frontline of European culture. For the Chamber 
Theater is indeed a Jewish theater, but it has attained its value 
outside the framework of purely Jewish art culture. In this very 
respect, it is the first and thus far the only October 
achievement of Yiddish mass culture. 

But not only in this respect. 

Usually, people imagine that October art is art that speaks 
directly about barricade battles, red banners, the hammer and 
sickle, shears and iron, bloodsucking capitalists, and oppressed 
proletarians. This is, of course, an over-simplified, vulgar 
position. If that were so, we should, for example, have 
renounced any proletarian or revolutionary music. For music 
speaks with tones and not with generally accessible words or 
paintings. Yet there is revolutionary music, and proletarian 
music is possible insofar as proletarian art in general is 

Revolutionary art in general, and October art in particular, 
is revolutionary not just in terms of its concrete themes and 
motifs, but in terms of its spirit, the moods it evokes, its play 
of colors, its rhythms, its tempos, the enchanted world into 
which it transposes us, the ideological thrust that dominates it. 
For art has methods of influence different from those of 
journalism. It remains art only when it leads to political 
conclusions, through its own ways and methods. If it is only 
journalistic it is not art, but simply agitation. If, however, it 
lacks agitational conclusions, it is socially dead even when it 
has purely formal achievements. And the Chamber Theater is 
the only theater here, and one of the few theaters in the whole 
Soviet Union, where a synthesis has been found between formal 
achievements and the ideological sediment of the October 

5. In the Rhythm of October. 

The Yiddish Chamber Theater is not a proletarian theater and 
does not claim to be. The Yiddish Chamber Theater, however, 
is the only theater that is acceptable for the proletariat. 


The Yiddish Chamber Theater rejects the methods of 
internal emotings which are explicated in a literary manner on 
the stage; it provides theatrical actions that attain a colossal 
value even for purely literary works. The method of emoting 
cripples even collective actions and degrades them to the level 
of individualistic brooding, whereas the method of theatrical 
action elevates even the internal experiences of the individual 
to the level of a moment in the collective being. 

This is because the Yiddish Chamber Theater bases its 
creation not on emotion, but on rationality; that is, not on the 
spontaneous force of unregulated feeling, but on the 
calculation of an organized understanding. It evokes feelings 
through the mathematical emphasis of rationality, through 
creation rather than spontaneous outbursts, which is entirely in 
the spirit of our October epoch. 

Meierkhol'd in Moscow and Kurbas in Kiev follow the 
same path, but they turn the material apparatus of the theater 
into a machine, while Granovskii rationalizes the living material of 
the theater. Of course, we cannot feel the present epoch 
without revealing its industrialism, without technical 
constructions, and therefore Meierkhol'd's and Kurbas 's work 
are a great achievement for the future theater of the proletariat. 
But through such a method, we may eventually be able to feel 
the technical milieu of the worker — though not the worker 
himself, and not his living nature. Therefore, in Meierkhol'd's 
and Kurbas's theaters we remember only technical 
construction, while in the Yiddish Chamber Theater we 
remember living figures and excited masses. Therefore, those 
theaters may be revolutionary only when they perform concrete 
revolutionary plays which speak tor themselves, while the 

Texts anJ Documents 161 

Yiddish Chamber Theater is always revolutionary, regardless of 
its repertoire, because technique alone can also serve, did serve, 
and still serves the bourgeoisie, but living flesh and blood 
serves only itself. 

The Sholem Aleichem Evening. 

The Yiddish Chamber Theater was a true revelation in our 
cultural creation, and this revelation came from the wintry 
north, from Petersburg. 

We had old centers of our mass cultural creation: Warsaw, 
Vilna, later Kiev. In the course of generations, our mass life 
was created there; there our literature emerged and developed, 
there too the first dreams took shape of a real, artistic Yiddish 
theater. They dreamed — but nothing came of it. Then active 
agitation was conducted for a "true" theater. The first who 
began to suffer and torment himself was Peretz Hirshbeyn; 
then Vayter began working toward this goal, and eventually 
Peretz himself took over the task. 

Under the impact of this heroic company, the unhappiness 
with the "old Yiddish theater," indeed, grew deeper — some 
signs of a new theater culture even appeared, but no new 
theater came out of it. 

Meanwhile, a kind of historic-cultural entanglement arose. 
For a long time, literature was the only element of our new 
culture. In time, literature also became the central 
organizational focus for all other domains of our artistic 
culture. And literature was the first to suffer in its isolation 
because of the actual lack of those other areas. Thus, from 
leading an active campaign to bring them to life, a damaging 
illusion emerged in literature that it was destined always to be 
the ruler, lawgiver, and tone-giver in those areas of art both 
during their emergence and after they had emerged. Writers 
became convinced that all other areas of art — painting, music, 
and especially theater — would and must be only appendices 
to literature and would have to follow its directives. And if 
literature was creative in its own domain, in its relation to 
those other areas, especially the theater, it became a pure 
culture-bearer, didactic, and Jewishly dilettantish. 

And suddenly — Petersburg! 


The city of the "Disseminators of Enlightenment," of 
the Baron Ginzburg family, oiVoskhod, of Slyozberg and 
Gruzenberg, of Vinaver and "Deputy Friedman," of Bramson 
and Pereferkovich — in a word, the city of Jewish plutocratic 
junk — how is it related to the cultural creation of the Jewish 

Hence everyone was skeptical about the Yiddish Chamber 
Theater made in Petersburg. We know the "Societies for the 
Encouragement of Jewish Art" that used to emerge in 
Petersburg, with doctors, lawyers, and often led by State 

All of a sudden the Yiddish Chamber Theater moved to 
Moscow and gave its first performance: Sholem Aleichem Evening. 
It was an incredible sensation. 

It was profanation enough that the theater was born 
without the midwifery of literature, but it also dared to 
manifest its independence in a Sholem Aleichem performance! 
Isn't Sholem Aleichem all "ours"? Don't we all know how he 
must be "interpreted" on the stage, what movements, gestures, 
and grimaces the performers must make, what decorative 
illustrations there must be — and here is everything topsy- 

There was a hue and cry. Literature didn't recognize its 
dream image and began blocking the theater. . . . 

Several years of literary-dilettantish siege passed, supported 
by the Jewishy petit-bourgeois small-mindedness of "everyday" 
Jews; and the Chamber Theater triumphed on the whole front. 

Now the Yiddish Chamber Theater celebrates its fifth 
anniversary, crowned with general and full recognition. At its 
celebration, it will have completed 300 performances of the 
same, initially sensational, now canonized Sholem Aleichem 
Evening. . . . 

Three hundred performances in four years! Not a small 
production program. . . . 

Permit me to quote myself. I once wrote about Sholem 

The major traits of Sholem Aleichem' s writings are daydreaming 
and skepticism: their unique combination creates lyrical irony, the 
lyric-Jewish humor. The daydreaming endows the skepticism with a 
hopeful character, it leaves the door open for the eternal ''perhaps yes. " 
The skepticism brings "a fair in the sky" {castles in the air} down to 
earth and transforms tangible life itself into a dream, into a question- 
niark. This daydreaming that gives wings of hope to doubt, this doubt 
that is willing meanwhile to deny the dreams, give in their coupling 
the deep simplicity, the elementary force that often becomes 
the work of a genius. They undress the soul, taking off all the 
inherited socio-cultural layers, and show it in its original form at 
the "time of Creation. " 

Sholem Aleichem' s lyricism, his lyrical hunuw. reveals the 
elementary force 'in the Jewish psyche. True, it is the psyche of certain 
Jewish strata in a specific historical epoch, but he succeeded in 
getting to the root, discovering our psychic skeleton. The unique 
coupling of daydreaming and skepticism in his lyrical work create 
the world of chaos in which his enchanted figures spin around like 
primitive marionettes. They say words that are so elementary and 
obvious, that are really on the tip of your tongue, that we are 
amazed that we didn't predict them ourselves, and yet they are 
always new, as an artistic discovery. Their movements and grimaces 
are the eternally old-new — and it often seems to us that we 
didn't see it first in Sholem Aleichem but that he copied it ready made 
from us. 

{In Umru. Kiev: 1918, pp. 93-94.) 

Daydreaming and skepticism, dream and doubt — those 
are the two basic areas of the human psyche: the areas of 
emotionalism and rationalism, spontaneity of feeling and the 
kingdom of rationality. We shall not enter into an argument 
about what causes what. I think that moving from the 
"kingdom of necessity" to the "kingdom of freedom" means 
that our future life will be regulated by rationality and not by 
spontaneous feeling, on condition that rationality itself will by 
then have the clairvoyance of feeling. 

But the Yiddish Chamber Theater evokes in us clearcur 
conceptions about Sholem Aleichem's figures and their chaotic 
world through methods of rationalistic creation. Menakhem- 
Mendel Yakenhoz (Mikhoels) reaches us, after all, as living and 
feeling flesh and blood. But we can see tangibly that this is 
achieved through an iron band of mathematical movements 
and gestures. Only thus is his "psychic skeleton" revealed to us, 
from which, covered with skin and flesh, endless variations of 
Menakhem-Mendel can blossom. Or take Reb Alter in Mazel 
Tov. Here we see through the "bare mathematics," the 
"elementary simplicity that often becomes a work of genius." 
Dressed in Chagall's costumes and surrounded by Chagall's 
designs, which, with all their fantasy, are rigorously calculated, 
mathematically concrete, they become those "enchanted 
figures" that remind us of "almost primitive marionettes " that 
can give rise to a plethora of new types. 

Or take the episode It's a Lie! Through the impulsive 
speech of two skeptical, daydreaming figures in Sholem 
Aleichem's Jewish world of chaos, confined in the iron grating 
of calculated movements and gestures and caged in Chagallized 

1 62 Texts and Documents 

Al'tmanish frames, we feel and palpably perceive, newly 
discovered, two Jewish luftmentsh figures. 

Because of a misunderstanding, our literature initially 
negated the Sholem Aleichmi Evming. But, in fact, it was and 
remained a powerful impetus for literature itself, for it created 
an entirely new key to understanding and grasping one of the 
founders of our modern literature. For the first time, Sholem 
Aleichem received the classical, truly artistic embodiment of 
his figures. In the Chamber Theater, Sholem Aleichem was just 
a beginning and a herald — The Sorceress proved what the new 
Yiddish Theater can make even of Goldfaden. . . . 

It is good that the twin sisters in our art culture finally 
recognized each other and learned to live together. This is one 
of the best laurel wreaths for the Yiddish Chamber Theater on 
its fifth anniversary. . . . 

The Yiddish Chamber Theater has found the secret of Jewish 
gesture, Jewish movement, Jewish plastics and dynamics, and, 
peeling the skin of Jewishy "wheeling-dealing" off it, the 
theater discovered the boundary where the national is 
transformed into the international. The theater created such a 
Jewish theater style, which can justly claim to be one of the 
styles which will in their ensemble construct the new style of 
the future international freedom-theater. 

By the force of an immense socio-cultural leap, of which the 
theater is capable, it filled the gap in Jewish theater culture — 
the absence of artistic traditions. At one and the same time, the 
theater creates artistic traditions that bear the value of 
generations of culture, and also overcomes them, transforming 
them into only elements of an artistic tradition. The theater 
found the magic key to the treasures of Jewish folklore which 
it poetically reshapes into works of art of a new mass culture. 

Texts and Documents 1 63 


Mark Moyseyevich 

Agents: A Joke In One Act (1905) Shohm AUichem 

Agents was one of three plays performed at the Sholem Aleichem Evening, the first production by the State 
Yiddish Chamber Theater. In this translation frniii the Yiddish, those phrases that were originally to be 
spoken in Russian are rendered in French. 


A young man from a small town, dressed in a new outfit fresh from the needle, with a new 
fedora (which doesn't sit well on his head), and with a collar that squeezes his eyes out of his 
forehead. In his lap he holds a large briefcase, also new. 

A young dandy. Also with a large briefcase. 

Akim Isaakovich Bakingfish A stout character who values eating. Also with a large briefcase. 

Lazar Konstantinovich 

A character with a big beard and a big family: a wife with several children, each one smaller 
than the next. 

Various characters, extras The action takes place on the road, in a third-class train car. 


Scene 1 

{In a train. Several characters sit, some lie stretched out, some sleep. On the racks, packages, 
valises. Up front, alone on a bench, close to the window, sits Menakhem-Mendel, observing his 
new outfit, talking to himself} 

Have they piled up clothes on me — like a bridegroom! All dolled up — like a bride! One 
problem — the pants are just a little bit too snug; and the collar . . . Oy, the collar! Just made for 
choking! . . . I'm traveling on a train. Do I know where I'm traveling? You will be, they said, a 
good agent. Your name alone, they said, will do it! Isn't it something, the name itself: 
Menakhem-Mendel Yakenhoz, who is known, they say, like a bad penny, everywhere: in 
Yehupets, in Boyberik, in Mazepevke, and where not? Travel, they said, among your little Jews, 
and be a success! Condemnify, they said, people from death .... To condemnify people from 
death? How do you start to condemnify somebody from death? May I know such a bad supper! 
Though they crammed into me for two days the agent's Torah, and an "advance" they also gave 
me, and this is the main thing because all agents take "advances." If there were no "advances," 
they say, there would be no agents. ... In addition to that, they filled me up a full briefcase with 
constitutions — institutions, I mean — how an agent should operate when he condemnifies 
somebody from death. I must start in right away on the constitutions — institutions, I mean. . . . 
{Opens the briefcase and pulls out a letter} Oh! Just mention Messiah — and you get a letter from 
Sheyne-Sheyndl! How does my mother-in-law put it: "When you look for scissors, you find a 
broom." . . . Still, you have to read again what she writes, your better half, may she have a long 
life. Anyway, it's boring on the train, nothing to do. {Reads the letter} "To my Honorable, Dear, 
Famous, Sage husband ..." In short, "Our Teacher and Rabbi Reb Menakhem-Mendel, May his 
Light Illuminate. First of all, I come to inform you that we are all, thank God, in the best of 
health, may God let us hear the same from you, not worse, in the days to come . . ." {Breaks off} 
Thank the Almighty, blessed be He, at least in good health. {Reads on} "Second of all, I am 
writing to you that you should have as much strength, you piece of a convert ..." {Breaks off} 
Already! She starts already with her blessings! {Reads on} "You should have as much strength, you 
piece of a convert, to wallow there in your disease, in the desolate, dark Yehupets, may it burn 
together with you in one fire, as much as I have strength to trip over my feet, for after all, the 
handsome doctor told me to lie in bed — may he lie in the cemetery next to you, as mama 
says . . ." {Breaks off} Aha! As mama says! {Reads on} "... as mama says, so it'll be cozier for you 
on the long winter nights. . . . What kind of new garbage — a new livelihood God sent down to 
him, my breadwinner! He will condemnify people to death! What does it mean, Mendel, that 
you will condemnify people to death? What for?" {Breaks off} She doesn't begin to understand 
what you write to her! {Reads on} "You're clean out of your mind — may you go out of your mind 
for all the Jews and for all the, not to put them in the same breath, Goyim, as mama says . . ." 
{Breaks off} There she goes again with mama! {Reads on} "... as mama says, a horse, when you let 
go of the reins, lifts its tail too. It's not enough, that is, that you followed over and over all pagan 
rites, you were everything in the book: a dealer — a wheeler, a buyer — a liar, a matchmaker — 
a heartbreaker, a pester — a jester, so that the whole world has to deal with you — you also have 
to try out trading with dead living corpses, as mama may she live says: wait a minute, he will 
soon dress you up as a wetnurse somewhere in Poland! . . . Wouldn't it have been a thousand 
times better if you should, for example, be now in the war with Jampony . . ." {Breaks off} Oh 
yes, of course! I'm flying right away! {Reads on} " . . . and return home in such a state, God forbid, 
like our Moyshe-Velvel Lcvi-Avrom came back, a dark night on me, with no arms and no legs 

1 64 Texts and Documents 



















and no body and no soul, as mama says, does the bullet know who it shoots? ... So remember, 
Mendel, this time I'm saying it with good wishes: may a commotion, a fire, a plague fall 
on you. ..." 

Scene 2 

[La/Jlermhooter walks into the compartment with a big valise, looks for a place to sit down] 


[Hides the letter in his briefcase] Oh. po//rcj//oi non? [To himself] A fine personage with a pretty 
valise . . . Maybe he'll let me condemnily him from death? 

[Tends to his valise, sits down next to Menakhem-Mendel . pulls out a cigarette] Avez-voi/s dii feu? 
[To himself] II faiit examiner la terre — a squeeze in the wagon. 

Oh! PoiirqiKn noii^ [Gives him a match. Talks to himself] Better he starts first. 

[Offers him a cigarette] S'il vo//s plait'f [To himself] IJn convenahle subject ... A provincial with a new 
outfit . . . Maybe we can do business with him? Just a little insurance to cover expenses . . . 

[Takes the cigarette] Oh! Poitrqtioi non^ [Lights the cigarette. Talks to himself] On the face of it, a 
pretty solid citizen. God willing, he will condemnify himself from death. 

[To himselj ] With such a jerk you can talk Yiddish. [Starts talking Yiddish] A pleasure to travel 
by train. . . . Not like it used to be! When you traveled by wagon, you used to, vous comprenez, 
drag on and on and on. 

[Repeats after him] Drag on and on and on. 

You were m Diaspora in the hands of the carter, like clay in the Makers hand. 

Like clay in the Maker's hand. 

He would pack a covered wagon with characters of various and sundry sort. 

Various and sundry sorts. 

Jews, females, a sack of flour, and a cantor, and a goat, and a priest . . . 

And a goat, and a priest . . . 

And as you went uphill, he told the characters to make the ellort to get out, forgive the 

Forgive the inconvenience. 

And today I'm a lord. I sit, vo/is comprenez, in a compartment and smoke a cigarette, ex. je siiis a mon 


A mon aise\ 

The old traveling did have one advantage — your life was safe. You weren't afraid, God forbid, of 
an accident, a catastrophe, that is, ot turning over, voiis comprenez, and flying like dumplings, 
upside down. 

Like dumplings, upside down. 

It's good to be protected with several thousand rubles after your death, so your wife and children 
shouldn't, God forbid, vous comprenez, go begging in the streets 

Go begging in the streets . . .[To himself] He walks straight into it like a good horse. . . . 

[To himsdj ] He follows me like a good colt! [Aloud] For, vous comprenez, as long as the wheel 
turns, it turns. 

It turns. 

Texts and Documents 1 65 

























1 66 Texts and Dociimenti 

And when it stops turning, it's — stop, machine! 

Stop, machine! 

\To hiDiself] He follows nicely. Let's go with him straight to the stable. [Aloi/d} The problem is, 
not everyone can protect himself with money. Today's expenses, irji/s compreiiez, with today-ay-ay- 
ay .. . 

With today-ay-ay-ay . . . 

So at least, to//t an iiioiiis, nu petit insurance. 

Un petit insurance . . . [To himself ~\ It's really something right from heaven, my word! 

I just now recalled something that happened in our town. One simple citizen who never had a 
thousand rubles in his life, vot/s comprenez, never saw the eyes of a hundred-ruble bill, still had the 
good sense to insure himself in time for several thousand rubles. Now he died, traveling, may it 
not happen to you, in a train, so they paid his wife in our town not much but five thousand 
rubles cash, one by one! 

Cash, one by one! Just the same as in our town. In our town too something happened — not with 
five, but with ten thousand rubles. May God so help me wherever I turn! 

{Excited^ Ten thousand rubles? 

Ten thousand rubles. 

What did they do with such a sum of money? 

What should they do? They opened a store, a clever store! 

Really? N//? And they make some money? 

And how! A treasure of a fortune! 

\To huuselj } This is the best moment. Let's take him for a ride. \Al()iid\ What can you say, 
envy a dead corpse; but when you remember the living, I'oiis coinprenez. . . . Everybody has a wife 
and children. . . . [Sighs] Everybody has to do it. 

[Sighs] Listen, this is what I'm talking about! [To himself] This is the best time. Let's rope 
him in. 

[Sighs] Blessed be he who does it in time. 

[Sighs] If you have good sense, you put the cart before the horse, you . . . and it's not expensive 
either. How much can it cost? 

[Excited] It depends on your years. I mean, can we indeed do it here? 

[Excited] Why not? 

A doctor we can get later, submit an affadavit, voi/s coinprenez . . . 

This is my last worry. The main thing is the sum. 

[Grabs his briefcase] The main thing isn't the sum, the main thing is the years. 

[Grabs his briefcase] Normally, the years. For example, how old are you? 

Me? What does it matter how old I am? 

What do you mean what does it matter? You said yourself the main thing is the years, 
didn't you? 

What do you mean? You want to indemnify me ? 

What else? You want to condemnify me ? 


















Are you an agent too? 

And how! Not just an agent, a sup-agent! 

{Stands lip. shakes his hand and introduces himself politely, but arroganHy~\ Mark Moyseyevich 
Lanternshooter, Agent Acquereur Regional of "Equitable." 

{Stands up and introduces himself elegantly'^ Menakhem-Mendel Yakenhoz, Sup-agent of "Yakir." 

Scene 3 

{Bakingfish enters the compartment with two valises and looks for a place to sit dou'n] 

Vous per}?iettez? 

S'il vous plait. 


{Sits down opposite, spreads his valises around. He opens one valise and takes out bottles and boxes with 
various foods, puts the second valise upright, like a table, and starts eating} On the road, you hear, it's 
good to carry everything with you, because you can't get what you need at every station, and I 
don't eat everything they give me. Fm afraid for my stomach. That is, not, God forbid, that I 
have a sick stomach, may it go on forever, but Fm afraid not to spoil it. The stomach, you hear, is 
a kettle. If, God forbid, the kettle stops cooking, then the whole machine is kaput. {Opens a bottle 
and pours himself a drink] L'Chaim, Jews, to your health. {Pours another drink and offers it to 
Menakhem-Mendel] Forgive me, will you have a little sip? My own home brew from orange peels. 

{To himself] A real friendly person. Maybe we could condemnify him from death? {Aloud] Thank 
you! Better offer it to him. {Points to Lanternshooter] 

{To Menakhem-Mendel ] Drink up. {To himself] A friendly subject. We could indemnify him, to 
cover expenses . . . 

{Has another drink and offers one to Lanternshooter] Have a sip, I beg you, of a good little drink and 
wash it down with these sardelles. Exquisite sardelles. Hah? What do you say? Aren't they good 
sardelles? Aren't they fresh? I don't move without sardelles. Don't ask, who knows what may 
happen on the road. On the road, you have to watch out for your food, because your health, you 
hear, is the most precious thing in the world. {Opens a bundle of kishke (dried stuffed derma), eats, 
and offers them some] Since you already tasted my sardelles, you have to taste my dried kishke too. 
Don't be scared, it's fresh and kosher, too. L if 1 buy kishke, I don't buy just any old kishke. 
Health, you hear, is the most precious thing in the world. Because, if you think about death, 
you're not sure of your life, and especially if you left at home a wife with two little kids like two 
eyes in your head. 

{Eats] No more than two? 

Only two? 

{Chewing] Not enough? And if, God forbid, you pick yourself up and drop dead? 

{Eats] With your complexion? 

{Eats] Kenna-hora, no evil eye should see it, with your looks? 

{Chewing] Don't look at me that Fm so ... If I hadn't supported myself with food, I would 
already have — Eh-heh-heh! {Opens another bundle] Come on, will you taste, forgive me, the 
smoked meat! It's cold but fresh. I, when I buy meat, 1 don't buy just any old meat. Why don't 
you have a pickle? It's an etrog, not a pickle. My wife, may she live long, before I leave home, 
when she starts to pack, she packs and packs and packs and packs . . . Take, I beg you, a glass of 
cherry brandy. It's our own cherry brandy, my wife's specialty. 

{Drinks] A loyal wife you have. 

{Drinks] You have a loyal wife. 

A rarity. One in a whole Guberniia! What do you know? 

Texts and Documents 1 67 




























1 68 Texts and Dm/imanti 

It's not a wife, vo/is comprenez, but some treasure! 

A treasure, not a wife! 

What do you know? What do you know? 

[To himself} Stepped on the right spot. ... It looks like it'll go the right way. . . . [Aloi/d'] Such a 
wife, you must appreciate. 

{To himself] He takes him in the right way. . . . {Alo/ui} Such a wife, you have to respect, such a 

{Peels an orange] What do you know? What do you know? Take, I beg you, a piece of orange. 
Good oranges. I, when I go to buy oranges, I don't buy just any old oranges. This too she packed 
for me, my wile, I mean . . . 

{Peels an orange] A wife like yours, you must not leave just like that, with no protection, God 
forbid, for the case of the worst case, in case. Heaven torfend, of a catastrophe. Vans comprenez? My 
way of doing it, that, en principe, a wife must be protected, let alone children, and let alone people 
like us, voi/s comprenez, road-people. . . . 

{To himself ] Nor bad, not bad, on my word! {Aloud] We are, after all, road-people, aren't we! 

My way of doing it too, that a wife you must protect, insure at least with a capital of some ten 
thousand rubles. There is only one recipe for that. 

{Excited] To indemnify yourself'' 

{Excited] To condemnify yourself from death? 

How did you guess what I mean? You took the words right out of my mouth! 

Good sense. For how else could people like us, vous comprenez, protect our wives? 

Simple good sense! 

Absolutely right. If you can pay a little at a time, and it doesn't cost much . . . Which one of you 
would like to make a deal? 

{Grabs his briefcase] Me, naturally. {Looks down at Menakhem-Mendel] 

{Grabs his briefcase] Naturally, me. 

You mean, both of you? My pleasure, even better. {Bends down for his briefcase] About a doctor, 
I think, there won't be any problem. 

From a doctor, we can bring an affadavit later. The main thing is the years. 

A paper from a doctor you can furnish later. How old are you — this is the main thing. 


Who else? 

Who else, me? 

What do you mean? Didn't you want me to in — 

You should us? We thought you! 

You, we thought! 

You? Me? Are you age — ? 

Of course, agents! And you? 

Agents, naturally! And you, who are you? 


















{Stands off, dusts off the food. Stretches out his hand'] I have the honor to introduce myself: Akim 
Isaakovich Bakingfish, Inspector-Organizer of "New York." 

Really? Our brother's keeper! Mark Moyseyevich Lanternshooter, Agent Acquereur Regional of 
"Equitable. " {Looks down at Menakhem-Mendel] 

Are you really, indeed, one of us?! {Elegantly] Menakhem-Mendel Yakenhoz, Sup-agent of 


Scene 4 

{Turtledove enters the train with his clan, lots of suitcases, packages, and baskets covered with shawls. Looks 
for a place for himself and his family] 

Est-ce que je peux entrer? 

Je vo/is en prie. 


Dans chante. {The new character sits down ivith his wife and children and they begin spreading their 
packages around. Commotion, tumult. One screams ''Dinner! Mama, dinner!" Another wants a drink. The 
mother cracks nuts, and puts them into the little child's mouth; she holds another baby at her breast. The 
older ones push to the window, elbow each other aside. The father honors them — 07ie with a slap, one with a 
poke, one with a smack on the back] 

{To himself ] Such a head of a family surely would need to be insured. {Aloud] No good with 
children on the road? 

{To himself] Un convenable subject to indemnify himself with the children! {Aloud] On the road 
with children must, Lm sure, be hard? 

{To himself] Maybe this character would condemnify himself from death, maybe? {Aloud] It's 
hard, I'm sure, with children on the road? 

As hard as death. 

They're jittery, your kids, aren't they? 

You spoil them? 

Are they spoiled, your kids? 

{Pokes the oldest to move him away from the window] Not so jittery as dear. 

Fine children you have. 

No evil eye turned out good, vous comprenez? 

Turned out good, no evil eye. 

Not bad. Learn very well. Well bred. Breeding is the main thing. {Calls the oldest one] Abrasha, 
come here! Give the uncle a hand. N/{, Abrasha! {Abrasha doesn't want to come and gets a slap from 
father] You see this brat?' {Points to the second one] "What a head! A genius, I'm telling you! But a 
hooligan! Oy, a hooligan! You argue with him, he'll mix you with mud. . . . And that snot-nosed 
boy, you see? — A sage! Listens to his mother like a tomcat. But tor me they have some respect. 
That is, they wouldn't listen to me either, but I have a whip and I lash, oy do I lash! Children, 
you hear, have to be taught, educated. Education is the main thing. You see this little squirrel, 
whose mother feeds him nuts? A big mouth! Not yet four years old and talks every word, every 
word like an old man. Davidke! Come here, Davidke! {The little squirrel called Davidke doesn't want 
to get out of his mother's arms, turns his head to father] Tell me, Davidke, what's your name? {Davidke 
answers "Tye. tye. tye."] How old are you, Davidke? {Davidke answers "Tye, tye, tye."] Davidke! Ask 
your mother to give you jam. [ Daiidke turns his head to his mother: "Tye. tye. tye!] What do you say 
to that? Every word, every word, like an old man! 

{Enthusing] For such children, you got to have a lot. 

For them, vous comprenez, you got to gird your loins. 

Texts and Documents 1 69 




















1 70 Texts and Documents 

Gird your loins, you got to. 

What's to be amazed! You see my gray hair? [Points to his beard] Not yet fifteen years after the 

[Shakes his head} Ay-yay-yay! 

No evil eye, such a company! 

Such a company, no evil eye! 

To nourish, clothe, shoe, teach, educate! Education is the main thing. That is, Lm not 
complaining, God forbid. Thank God I have a fine job, I work out my lew thousand rubles with 
these ten fingers. [Shows them his fingers} But as I take a look at my tribe, no evil eye, and it occurs 
to me, if. Heaven forfend, may God watch over, the hour should never come. . . . You 
understand? As long as the head serves, and the hands work. . . . You understand? 

Oh! We understand very well. We are also family men. We know the taste of raising children. 

To protect children is, vo/is coinprenez, one of the big thhigs! 

A big thing to protect children, to protect! 

I argue it all the time with my wife, and with everybody separately, wherever I come, 1 argue the 
same: What would people like us have done, middle-class people, if there were no means to — 

[Takes the words out of his ino/ith] To insure yourself? 

To indemnify yourself, ^w/r le cas de mort} 

To condemnify yourself from death? 

[Excited] I see on your face that you all understand it very well, and that you are all ready to 
make a deal? So I can only congratulate you — you're doing a good thing. 

[Very agitated] We do what our duty tells us to do. 

What our conscience dictates, i'o//s coiiiprenez. 

We are doing the just thing, we are. 

May God help you, as you wish it for yourself, may you have long days and years, may God give 
you pleasure as you have given me pleasure, along with my wife and children; they, poor things, 
are looking for this, for I am their only breadwinner. [Pitlls out a briefcase] How much do you 
want to make? For instance, what kind of a sum, that is? 

[Busies himself with his briefcase] How can we know what kind of a sum? 

[Busies himself with his briefcase] Can we, vous comprenez, give you any advice? 

What do you mean, we should give you advice, we? 

[Atnazed] What do you mean, you me? It's I want you — 

[Beside himself] You want to make the spiel to us ? 

You want to indemnify us, en cas de mort} 

You want to condemnify us from death? You^ 

What else? You — we? Are you agents too? 

Ha-ha-ha! Of course, agents. And how about you? 

Agents, vous comprenez. And who are you? 

Agents, you bet! And you? 






[Elegantly'] Lazar Konstantinovich Turtledove, Inspector General and Agent Organizer of 

[Elegant/]] Akim Isiuikovich Bakingfish, Inspector-Organizer of "New York." 

Mark Moyseyevich Lanternshooter, Agent Acquereur Regional of "Equitable. ' [Looks down at 
Menakhem-Mendel ] 

[Elegantly] And 1 am Menakhem-Mendel Yakenhoz, am I, sup-agent of "Yakir." [All four shake 
hands and exchange cards. Only Menakhem-Mendel pats all his pockets ] Oh dear! I haven't got any 
cards yet, I haven't! 

[Sighs] A hard way to make a living. Eh? 

[Sighs] Like crossing the Red Sea! You travel, you snitf, you think — maybe? 

[Looks down at Menakhem-Mendel] Voiis comprenez? Maybe it would not have been so bad if there 
weren't so many agents. Woiis comprenez, competition . . . 

What do I need competition-shmompetition? Say it in simple Yiddish: You lay in the ground 
and bake bagels. 


I. Yakenhoz: a mnemonic device ro remember the order of the blessings said at the Kiddush ot a holiday that falls at 
the end of the Sabbath. In Yiddish, Yakenhoz sounds like a funny name, and may suggest a kind of rabbit. In his 
introduction to the comedy Yakenhoz, or the Great Stock Market Game, Sholem Aleichem wrote, "Y. K. N. H. Z. 
[Yakenhoz] has five letters, the initials of five words: Yayin, Kiddush, Ner, Havdoleh, Zman [wine, blessing, candle, 
separation, time] — the five signs of a Jewish holiday. The word itself has no meaning. It is something, yet nothing; 
nothing to hold on to. He who knows the trade of stocks, papers, rates, etc., on the stock market will understand at 
once the taste of Yakenhoz; and he who is far from that business will digest it only after reading the whole work to the 

Texts and Documents 171 

Essays, Speeches, 
and Letters by Chagall 

With the exception of Chagall's letter to the managenmit ofGOSEKT. 
u'hich was written in Russian, the works in this section are translated 
from the Yiddish. 

1 72 Texts and Documents 

To the Management of GOSEKT 

This Utter, ni R//SMciii. /s iii the State Bakhritshni M/ise/iiii. Moscow. 

When I finished my work, I assumed, as was promised, that it 
would be exhibited pubHciy like many of my most recent 

The management will agree that, as an artist, I cannot rest 
until the "masses" see it, etc. 

Instead, the works appear to have been placed in a cage and 
can be seen, crowded (though happily so), by at most a 
hundred Jews. I love Jews very much (there is plenty of 
evidence for this), but I also love Russians and various other 
peoples and am used to painting serious work for many 

Hence, my demand and appeal to the theater are natural 
and legitimate; I am asking you to put at my disposal twenty- 
eight hours in the course of two weeks — two hours a day — 
for the organization of an exhibition and survey of my works 
for all interested parties. The expenses for the organization of 
the exhibition, such as posters, etc., will be borne by IZO 
NKP [Art Division, People's Commissariat of Enlightenment} 
or by me. I cannot give up this demand. 

Expecting an official answer, 

Marc Chagall 


Leaves From My Notebook 

Originally p/tblishecl III '>,\\ivom, Moscon'. no. i ( Ip22). 

A few words, comrades, on the topic you asked me to write 
about at length — my opinion on Jewish art. 

Just recently in Jewish artists' circles a hot debate went on 
about the so-called Jewish art. 

In the noise and fever, a group of Jewish artists emerged. 
Among them was Marc Chagall. 

Still in Vitebsk when this misfortune happened — just 
returned from Paris — I smiled to myself. 

I was busy then with something else. 

On the one hand, Jews of the "new world" — that world so 
hated by Litvakov — my shtetl alleys, hunchbacked, herringy 
residents, green Jews, uncles, aunts, with their questions, 
"Thank God, you grew up, got big!" 

And I kept painting them. . . . 

On the other hand, I was younger then by a hundred years, 
and I loved them, simply loved them. . . . 

I was more absorbed by this, this gripped me more than the 
thought that I was anointed as a Jewish artist. 

Once, in Paris, back in my LaRuche room, where I worked, 
I heard through the Spanish screen the quarrel of two Jewish 
emigre voices, "So what do you think, after all, Antokolsky 
wasn't a Jewish artist, nor Israels, nor Liebermann!" 

The lamp was dim and lit my painting standing upside 
down (that's how I work — now are you happy?!) and finally, 
when the Paris sky began to dawn, I laughed at the idle 
thoughts of my neighbors about the lot of Jewish art, "O. K., 
you talk — and I will work." 

Representatives of all countries and nations! — To you — 
my appeal. (I cannot, I remembered Spengler.) Confess: Now, 
when Lenin sits in the Kremlin, there is no sliver of wood, 
smoke rises, the wife is angry — do you now have "national 

You, clever German Walden, and you, various others who 
preach international art, fine Frenchmen, Metzinger and 
Gleizes (if they're still alive), you will answer me, "Chagall, 
you're right! " 

Jews, if they feel like it (I do), may cry that the painters of 
the shtetl wooden synagogues (why am I not with you in one 
grave?) and the whittlers of the wooden synagogue clappers — 
"Hush!" (I saw it in An-ski's collection, got scared) — are 

But what is really the difference between my crippled 
Mohilev great-grandfather Segal who painted the Mohilev 
synagogue, and me, who painted the Yiddish theater (a good 
theater) in Moscow? 

Believe me, no fewer lice visited us as we wallowed on the 
floor and in workshops, in synagogues and in the theater. 

Furthermore, I am sure that, if I stopped shaving, I would 
see his precise portrait. . . . 

By the way, my father. 

Believe me, I put in cjuite a bit of effort; no less love (and 
what love!) have we both expended. 

The difference is only that he took orders for signs and I 
studied in Paris, about which he also heard something. 

And yet. Both I and he and others (there are such) are not 
yet Jewish art as a whole. 

Why not speak the truth? Where would it come from? God 
forbid it should have to come from some fiat! From Efros 
writing an article, or because Levitan will give me an 
"academic ration!" . . . 

There was Japanese art, Egyptian, Persian, Greek. 
Beginning with the Renaissance, national arts began to 
decline. Boundaries are blurred. Artists come — individuals, 

Texts and Documents 1 73 

citizens of this or that state, born here or there (blessed be my 
Vitebsk) — and one would need a good registration or even a 
passport specialist (for the Jewish desk) to be able to 
"nationalize" all the artists. 

Yet it seems to me: 

If I were not a Jew (with the content I put mto that word), 
I wouldn't have been an artist, or I would be a different artist 

Is that news? 

For myself I know quite well what this little nation can 

Unfortunately, I am too modest and cannot say aloud what 
it can achieve. 

It's no small matter what this little nation has achieved! 

When it wanted — it showed Christ and Christianity. 

When it wished — it gave Marx and Socialism. 

Can it be that it won't show the world some art? 

It will! 

Kill me if not. 

Hov/ i Got to Know Peretz 

Ong/iiitlly p//hlishecl ni Literanshc bleter, Warsaw, nos. 49—50 
(1925). Reprhitec/ //I Di goldene keyt. Tel Aviv. no. 6o(ip6y). 

You asked me, dear colleagues, to write for the Peretz issue. 
You probably think it is enough to love something in order to 
be able to write about it — to write about Peretz. But is he 
who loves a critic? 

Besides, I note with fear that 1 have recently lost, it seems 
to me, the talent for writing. . . . The pen betrays me. . . . 

I didn't even know Peretz personally. Only when a 
publisher (I don't remember which) asked me to do drawings 
for one of Peretz's tales, "The Magician," did I start reading 
Peretz. I was surprised. You can certainly remember the 
impression when you walk in the street and turn into another 
street and, at that very corner, behind a fence, a Jewish moon 
with a dark horizon behind it suddenly leaps at your feet from 
the sky. 

Just like that did poor and splendid Jewish images and 
figures float up from the little white pages. It is simple and 
new. It is that modest, hardly underlined noble technique, 
those already lived-out means that alone can make art national, 
independent of content. 

And really, from childhood on, haven't they dangled 
anxiously inside us — those notes, Sabbath days, Friday 
evenings, velvet caps, girls of your first love, landscapes 
breathing with psalms, the last tones of the weary cantor, and 
Jews, Jews on the earth and in the sky? 

I recall my strolls along the street on the riverbank. Past the 
sawmill and factory, far, far beyond the other side of the bridge 
— there, you stop at a tree next to the graveyard. Peretz 
murmured to my feet from below. Swam in the clouds above. 
Rustled among the little houses — the tombstones of the 
cemetery, where pieces and crumbs of his folklore stories were 
heaped up — various scraps of paper covered with writing. 
Wasn't the forsaken, mountainous and half-alive place good for 
the stage of his play, A Night in the Old Market'! 

I will not calm down until the collection of his folklore 
tales is illustrated by me. A dream! 

I am sorry, dear colleagues, that on the day of the Yortseyt, I 
cannot be in a corner in a synagogue somewhere — where Jews 
will remember Peretz. In such moments our lives and our 
works pass before our eyes. . . . And years unknown are still 
there for us. 

And you think: our epoch may be one of iron and cruelty, 
yet we have now rediscovered Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. 

They were first to lay their hands on you and bless you — 
the new generations of Jewish poets and writers. 

1 74 Texts and DncNtiients 

Letters to YIVO On a Jewish Art Museum 

YIVO. the Jewish Scientific liistit/ite. ivas founded in Vihia in 192$. 
For its Conference in 1929, Chagall wrote a letter initiating the 
creation of a Jewish Art Museum. The museum, supported financially 
by the Berlin psychoanalyst Eitingon, was officially opened by the 
eminent historian Professor S. Dubnov, on the tenth anniversary of 
YIVO, August 18, ip^^. Jacob Sher, who greeted the delegates on 
behalf of the Vilna Jewish artists, remarked, "It is the greatest 
celebration for the young Jewish artists to see Chagall. Chagall is the 
dream of every young artist. The Vilna artists have lived to see 
Chagall with their own eyes and to hear him speak in the 
international language, the Esperanto, called Jewish art. " Chagall 
delivered the opening address. The following letters were published in 
Journal for Jewish Art, Vilna (YIVO). no. I (Nov. -Dec. 1936). 

Allow me to say a tew words about the Jewish Scientific 
Institute. We Jews, scattered over the whole world, badly need 
cultural institutions to unite us. You absolutely must not 
postpone the organization of a Section for Art. It is as necessary 
as the whole Institute. 

I admit, for quite some time a bitterness has been building 
up in me, since, even in the better Jewish circles, there is no 
discussion of the need to create a Jewish art museum. Few 
among us are aware of how important it is, and not just 
politically. The centers for collecting for the museum will be 
Vilna, Berlin, New York. I know it would have been easy to 
establish in Paris, for example, a society of "Friends of a Jewish 
Museum Foundation" with branches in all other cities. But I 
also know the fate of such societies dealing with the issues of 
Jewish art. The Jewish Scientific Institute, since it stands on its 
own two feet, and wants to take care of it, must do so as soon 
as possible. 

You will tell me, "Be our guest, come work, help." Thus 
far, I haven't refused. If I had two lives, I would have given one 
to the Jews. But our art is a terrible art, it demands all of your 
soul, your entire devotion. 

You will say, and the means.'' The means, as always, must be 
given by the Jewish government, that is, by the Jewish people 
as a whole. While we are wasting enormous sums on, I admit, 
important but temporary needs, we must especially find money 
for such a goal. We Jews have often been accused of not being 
capable of art. Now we could show the world what we really 

But we possess absolutely no connoisseurs of the visual arts, 
while we do have many specialists in Yiddish literature. Hence, 
the Institute should set up courses to study the problems of art 
in general and of Jewish art in particular. 

This is more or less what I wanted to tell you. It may seem 
like an illusion, but illusions are often important and vital. I 
greet YIVO warmly and wish it success. 

Your devoted. 

Marc Chagall 

dying of starvation, I was even more upset. 

But — no! 

Let everyone help build our true Jewish art, our Jewish 
museum foundation, our science of art, our strength! Let your 
journal serve those goals successully. 

Paris, October 1936 

Marc Chagall 

Dear Dr. Schneid: 

On the publication of the first issue oi the Journal for Jewish Art 
by the Museum at YIVO, I send you my best wishes. 

I have thought a lot about it. 

Humanity today is far from both art and humanity. And I 
have often thought that my erstwhile talks and plans about a 
museum and about art are perhaps off the mark. 

And after my trip to Poland, when I saw the Jews almost 

Texts and Document i I 1 75 

Speech at the World Conference of the Jewish Scientific 
Institute, YIVO 

Originally published in World Conference of the Jewish Scientific 
Institute: On the Tenth Anniversary of YIVO. Vilna: YIWO. ip^d 
Reprinted in Di goldene keyt. no. 6o (l^Sy). 

Actually, you might think I am out of place here. For I am an 
artist and you are scientists. But I am here exactly as you are, 
for we share the same weakness, the same pasiion: J ews . 

And precisely now, in this terrible and ridiculous time, in 
the time of contemporary fashionable anti-Semitism, I would 
like to emphasize once more that I am a Jew. And by this very 
fact, I am even more international in spirit — not like the 
model of the professional revolutionaries who contemptuously 
shake off their Jewishness. 

There are several reasons why I am here. I have known these 
little huts and fences around you by heart for a long time. But 
your house, the house of the Institute, though it seems to be as 
poor as a hut in one of my paintings, is nevertheless as rich as 
Solomon's Temple. So I greet it and I greet you who created it. 
I am filled with a special, bitter joy, by the thought that 
without means, with no state support, with only enthusiasm 
and love, you built a house with your own hands. In the future, 
in the period of our ascendance, this house will serve as a 
model of stubborn Jewish devotion to the idea of culture. 

There is also a personal reason why I came here. A few 
kilometers from you, there is a land, actually just one city, 
which I haven't seen in a long time, and which won't let go of 
me. I used your invitation and came to meander here a while. 
I admit that the older I get, the lazier I get, and I don't move 
if I'm not called. 

I don't know why, but between me and my homeland there 
IS a one-sided affair, and nevertheless, such a land of genius, 
with such a revolution of genius, might have sensed what 
occurs in the heart of one of their own, and not just listened to 
and believed in the words and declarations ot the confession 
letters. . . . 

But the major reason for my coming here is to remind again 
not just you Vilna Jews (because you do do something in this 
respect), but the Jews of the whole world, that a Jewish 
Scientific Institute is indeed beautiful — but that a Jewish Art 
Museum is just as beautiful and just as important. 

Indeed, since the end of the nineteenth century and the 
beginning of the twentieth, Jews have strained at their fetters 
and stormed into the world with their art; and it seems to me 
that this cultural contribution is the most important Jewish 
contribution of recent times. But most people have barely 
heard about it. The masses and the intelligentsia don't see it; 
everything is splintered, not concentrated, and I even feel 
awkward talking about it because I am myself an interested 

But what can you do? We Jews don't have otir own 
Baudelaire, Theophile Gauthier, ApoUinaire, who powerfully 
forged the artistic taste and the artistic concepts of their time. 
Can we help it? In our Jewish society, we don't have a 
Diaghilev, a Morozov, a Shchukin, who collected and organized 
the art culture with such ardor and understanding. 

And the fact that the intelligentsia in general, and Yiddish 
writers in particular, lack interest in the plastic arts indicates 
that art is alien and superfluous in their lives and work, and 
the world rests on literature alone. 

It Yiddish poetry, Yiddish literature, were intertwined with 
other branches of art in general, and with visual art in 
particular, it would have been richer, it would have 
strengthened its upward thrust, both in spirit and in style. 

If we take, for example, Russian literature — the 
connection between Pushkin and the pseudoclassicists of his 

time, between Gogol' and Alexandr Ivanov, Tolstoi and the 
"Itinerants, " Chekhov and Levitan, or in our literature, Peretz 
and his fine sensibility for the modernism of his time — we 
will surely find that this connection filled their literary 
creation with an intensive plastic actuality, with a new source 
of richness, with a great freshness. And therefore their 
language is not ethnographic, but tmiversal in a pure artistic 
sense. But this is a different problem, much more important 
than one might think, and perhaps also a scientific problem, so 
I hand it to the proper address, to you, scientists. 

Simply, we new Jews who, thousands of years ago, created 
the Bible, the work of the Prophets, the basis of all religions of 
all peoples, we also want to create great art that will resound in 
the world. 

But I am not amazed at the feeling toward us on the part of 
strangers or enemies. No, what amazes me is the relationship of 
all layers ot Jewish society to its own artists, their treatment of 
the artists as second-class political activists, who don't deserve 
even parr of that respect we grant artists of the pen or the 
theater, who often have to be grateful to the visual artists 
themselves. I am not talking just about the fact that Jews don't 
buy paintings, don't support the artists, though this is also 
important in today's time of crisis. What is important is the 
attention, the interest. And if this appears sometimes, it is 
directed to the least talented and most tasteless "kitsch." 

Indeed, the reasons for that situation are well known. The 
Torah, which gave us the Ten Commandments, snuck in an 
eleventh commandment too: "Thou shalt not make unto thee 
any graven image." 

Our monotheism was dearly bought — and, because of 
that, Judaism had to give up observation ot nature with our 
eyes, and not just with our soul. On religious grounds, Judaism 
struggled with ancient idolatry, whose remnants are displayed 
today in all museums ot the world, so that it remained with no 
share in the treasures of graphic art. We left nothing behind us 
in the world's museums except for Torah Scrolls and the 
abandoned synagogues that are no longer attended. 

But we, the new Jews, have revolted against this, we no 
longer want to recognize such a state of affairs, we want to be 
not just the People of the Book, but also a people of art. This is 
the source of the birth pangs of our art, this is why its infancy 
is so sad. All this requires good organization and good will: to 
collect art among Jews and everything that is related to the 
history of art, to promote art not as a thing outside us, but as 
part of our internal life, and to encourage our artists. 

Collecting paintings must not be only a matter ot the 
artists' philanthropy. Keep in mind that even canvases and 
paints cost the artist more than a pen and paper for the writer; 
but no one would think of asking for a writer's manuscript — 
whether valuable or not — tor nothing. At a time when we 
seem to complain everywhere that we have no advocates in the 
world, which persecutes us so much, and we dream of a 
congress where disbarred lawyers will appear, we forget that we 
have in our hands an immense shield; our cultural treasures 
must speak for us, must plead our case and defend us. The 
Scientific Institute is a valuable treasure, but we must also 
create an art institute, national art foundations, which will 
continue to nourish and build museums in the centers of 
Jewish life. You may say that this is an illusion, but the 
illusory and fantastic, as we often discover, are the most real. A 
proof is the YIVO. For the first conference of YIVO, six years 
ago, I wrote to you about creating a museum at the YIVO. I 
know how difficult it is. But better difficult than hurried, as 
they did in Eretz Israel, where, despite my warnings, they 
brought together anything they could, and the leadership went 
to inexperienced and not-very-artistic hands. The new Jewish 
people does not need a repetition of the Bezalels. 

1 76 Texts and Doiiniienis 

We don't need to reach the goal right away. There is a 
whole series of preparatory stages, moral and material: 
propagating the idea, training art historians and museum 
specialists, staging exhibitions in public institutions, workers' 
clubs, schools; organizing excursions to the European centers, 
to the great international exhibitions; instructing teachers, 
pupils, students in teachers' colleges and universities in 
understanding art; fostering their knowledge of art as you 
foster their taste in literature; publishing books and journals 
about art. For Jewish taste is horrible, backward; and their 
confidence in their own judgment is even greater. Young (and 
not so young) people, who travel to the great centers to study 
law, medicine, and other professions that often don't c]uite feed 
the body, might have thought a bit about art culture, about art 
that at least nourishes our spirit. 

I close with the feeling that all I have said, and all I have 
not said, should have been said at a conference of writers and 
artists. But artists as a social element practically don't exist; 
artists can hardly talk to each other. Therefore, others, all of 
you here, have to look at us actively from the side, organize 
sensibly, tactfully, and with an internal empathy. 

For a long time, I have wanted to say these few words about 
our role, about your role, about the role of all of us, not just 
artists, but scientists, and all Jews for the good of all humanity. 
In these days of crisis, not just a material but also a spiritual 
crisis, when world crises, wars, revolutions flare up over a piece 
of bread, and the Jews truly don't have the wherewithal or the 
where to live, there is still no sweeter mission than suffering 
and working for our goal, for our spirit, which lives in our 
Bible, which lives in our dreams about art, which can help 
bring the Jews to the true and right path, to achieve while 
other nations just spill blood — their own and that of others. 

August 14, 1935 

The Artist and the Poet 

Speech deltvered in New York on April 50, 1944. on the publication of 
Itsik Fefer's book, To Start Anew f Oyfsnay/, which Chagall 
illustrated. Fefer, a Soviet Yiddish poet, visited the United States with 
Mikhoels in September 194^. The manuscript is in the YWO archives 
(Neu' York City). 

Thank you for your invitation to be with you at this assembly. 
I am just an artist struggling with himself and his art. 'What 
can I say, I who want to hear? Perhaps the folk proverb is right, 
that silence is golden and the word is silver. 

But today it must be different. Keeping silent is not 
golden, and there are words that say nothing. For an artist, it is 
not enough today to live with nature, with himself He must 
also live with and feel the people. 

Today my people are those who let their life's road be 
illuminated by the young rays that emanate from our great 

My people are those who strive toward the unity of all its 

And, like many of you, I want the realization of a just 
Jewish home for millions of Jews in Eretz Israel, which must 
be dear to everyone. 

Those are the three points without which a Jew is today 
only half a man and only half a Jew. The more I strive toward 
them simultaneously — the fuller is my personality as a Jew 
and as a artist. 

With those three points, we bring our Jewish face to the 
ideal that is possible today. The splintering of the Jewish 
people has long led to its deformation and unhappiness. What 
Paris once was for those who sought art — I admire my great 
homeland for its achievements and ambitions. It saves the 
world. Jewish America should have become the great 
movement of Jewish unity. 

Three Jewish worlds need each other. Together they must 
create the strength of Jewish creativity and culture; together 
the Jewish people will become whole, morally and physically. 
Unity is our new Hasidism. 

I come to greet you as a simple Jew from the people. My 
father was from the people, a worker. In his shul, he was for 
"unity"; when he heard the word Jerusalem, he cried. My 
father is my best academy. 

A few days ago, the war in Europe ended. The Jewish 
people who remain rise emaciated, pale. They look around: 
what remains of the people? 

What remains are their pain and scattered sacks of their 
limbs. I don't know if they will count our lost Jewish people's 
armies. If only Moses were here, he would have presented a 

I want to hope that "on the waters of another river" a new 
child will be found — a Moses who will heal the Jewish people 
both from satiation and hunger, will straighten the twisted 
ways, and twist the straight ones a bit. He will put us on our 
feet so we will become a people of dawn and not of sunset. 

Now is the time. No world conferences can be successful 
until the Jewish people are taken down from the cross on 
which they have been crucified for two thousand years. 

The world must do justice to itself Temporary luck and 
wealth is not enough — a state, a land, also has a 
consciousness, a soul, like an individual person. 

The Jewish people emerged from the war like a capsized 
ship at sea. We look in the water — torn legs and souls are 
floating, torn Torah scrolls disintegrate like bright, childish 
intestines. From the abyss you hear no divine or prophetic 

And as always the sun burns above and colors us and 
everybody with the color of red blood. 

Texts and Documents 1 77 

The war is over. But may peace not be like that painting 
that has everything except a soul. 

I greet the Jewish folk masses. I always wanted to feel like 
one of them, to fill myself with the people's breath, as once 
upon a time in my home. It is good to come to the people, as a 
man who knocks at the door at night. Let us just not think 
that the door is like a wall. To go to the people . . . find in 
them a salvation from yourself, a way to a lost world. 

I wish you and your chilciren to seek not only a piece of 
bread, but primarily to strive to reach the source of Jewish and 
human culture, and thus we will attain general human value in 
our own eyes and in the eyes of others. 

To the Paris Artists 

The typed nianiisiript is the 17 VO archives (New York City). 

I send my word to you, my fellow painters of the Salon of 

Thirty-five years ago, as a very young man, like thousands 
of others, I came to Paris to fall in love with France and study 
French art. 

In recent years I have ielt unhappy that I couldn't be with 
you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. 

On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my 
life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my 
friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who 
loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the 
liberation of Paris. 

In the course of these years, the world was anxious about 
the fate of French civilization, of French art. 

Tlie absence of France seemed impossible, incomprehensible. 
Today the world hopes and believes that the years of struggle 
will make the content and spirit of French art even more 
profound. The world hopes and believes that the art of France 
will, more than ever, be worthy of the great art epochs of the 

I bow to the memory of those who disappeared, and of those 
who fell in the battle. 

I greet you, Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard. I greet you, Raoul 
Dufy. I greet you, the old and the young, who all fought with 
so much courage. 

I would also like to greet my friends, the French writers 
who are so worthy to bear that name, Jean Paulhan, Jean 
Cassou, Andre Malraux, Paul Eluard, and so many others. 

I bow to your struggle, to your fight against the foe of art 
and life. 

Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is 
resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free 
of the Satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the 
body but also the soul — the soul, without which there is no 
life, no artistic creativity. 

Dear friends, we are grateful to the destiny that kept you 
alive and allowed the light of your colors and your works to 
illuminate the sky darkened by the enemy. 

May your colors and your creative effort have the strength 
to bring back warmth and new belief in life, in the true life of 
France and of the whole world. 

October 14, 1944 

1 78 Texts and Documents 

To the Je>vish People in Paris 

Originally piiblnhad in Naye Prese. Paris. Junt l^, 1946. Reprinted 
in Di goldene keyt, no. 60 ( ipdy). 

From one soul to the other, from year to year, from country to 
country. . . . 

I am back here again, where I spent my youth in art. 

You, along with other peoples, brought me here. 

Here is my beautiful and melancholy city. I still saw little 
of you. Just a few eyes, a few weary faces. 

I saw how similar you are to me, to my art, but through 
your eyes I saw more — I saw the gun that liberated us, but 
also the smoke of the burning ovens, the forests and the 
villages where you hid and fought, and the heroism that is the 
greatest in our history. 

It seems to me that you are standing before me, 
impoverished and naked, in tatters. 

But be calm, this reminds me of those paintings by 
Rembrandt, where naked and barely covered figures appear, 
and are therefore as pure as gold. . . . 

We lived to see that our life is like the torn tatters on those 
paintings of genius, but our spirit still shines. 

Only one woe: We lost our dear ones. Our house is empty, 
even when we are in it. 

We are crying and cannot cry them out enough. We are 
seeking them up above in the clouds. We are seeking them 
down below in the corners. We are seeking them in 
ourselves. . . . 

We touch ourselves and push ourselves away. It is only 
us — without them. 

We are desolate, not just because we are missing our near 
ones, but because many "near ones" here and there look like 
strangers. . . . 

We are amazed that the more we break through to light — 
the deeper we see the "shadow." 

But where was the real "foe?" The barbarian who 
accidentally has a human face, who destroys a child and a 
woman and robs in broad daylight, cannot be called "foe." He 
could not present to us any important philosophical or moral 
proof — against our philosophy and morals. 

We won. 

In my personal life, I want to see some consolation in that: 
that we will remain what we were before. We don't want to 
flee from the depths of our culture and belief, for through them 
lies the road to the world. 

And we still want to create our form and content. 

And it seems to me that out of the fire, breaking the 
boundaries of factionalism, Jews will find a language of unity. 

A. Sutzkever — Poet and Symbol 

Speech at a celebration in Pans honoring the Yiddish poet and 
partisan A. Sutzkever. 

I am happy to be among Jews and greet my friend and poet 
Sutzkever, who is not only a great poet, but also a symbol of 
that tragic and heroic time when our people still lived in their 
old homes. He was among those who, in the locked-up 
ghettoes, fevered and fought our enemy. His young eyes saw 
that reality which we didn't know in our youth. Therefore, his 
poems, no matter with what color they are painted or what 
they sing about, often take on that tragic tone of our yesterday. 
While we dreamed once upon a time about such fantastic, 
sweet fires and broken khupa houses, he saw ugly man in his 
physical and spiritual mire. 

Therefore, I feel a kind of obligation to Sutzkever and his 
friends the other heroes. Moreover, Sutzkever the poet is also 
often close to me. Pieces of his young poetry remind me of 
pieces of my Vitebsk streets, when I walked over them, over 
the roofs and chimneys, believing that, outside of me, no one 
lived in the city, that all the girls were waiting for me, that 
from the graves in the cemetery, the dead were listening to me, 
that the clouds and the moon turned with me into another 

But there is no more Vitebsk nor Vilna, and together with 
them, the Yiddish language has shuddered, and what not? 
Only a distant sound remains, such an unclear taste on the tip 
of your tongue. 

Sometimes the familiar tombstone with its torn Torah 
Scrolls appears from afar — the thin Yiddish poet and painter 
who writes and paints. For whom, for what? 

But if Sutzkever saw the face of that last day, in a happy 
day he started a new day. He hovered over to the land of the 
Jewish natural dream, to the biblical land. He lives in Israel. I 
cannot help but recall here my old friend the national poet 
Bialik, walking around the streets of Tel Aviv like a prophet 
and suddenly, quietly, on the side, asking my little daughter 
and my wife (apparently, he thought women were closer to 
God . . . ) to pray for him to be able to write poems — he had 
in mind the city of Odessa, where he had previously created his 
monumental poems. . . . 

My dear friends, you feel that the time has come for us Jews 
to be born again. We are not a people that dies. And may your 
art attain even more the new shine we have recently seen on the 
faces of the "sabras" born in our land. 

May you find the harmony of yesterday and today. I know it 
is difficult to find such a balm to heal and renew our body and 
soul. Perhaps this is a good means: to let your own diamond 
shine and illuminate freely, if you have one, let the colors sink 
freely inside you if you are born with them. And the form of a 
world will follow us like a shadow, but the shadow is not a 
shadow, it is the Jew in us. 

It becomes ever clearer that the freer we are, the more Jews 
we are; and the more Jew — the more man we become. 

We are stronger now, though smaller in number, and may 
our enemies understand little by little that it is superfluous 
and dangerous to touch us. For our strength is our internal 
truth, a truth like the purest hue of a painting, as freedom 

Art, poetry, is built on such a fiery base. It envelops the 
man and the people. May you so Jewishly stream into our 
people as into a river, a river that flows into the sea of the 


Texts and Documents \ 179 

Summary Translation of Chagall's Letter to 
President Weitzman 

This s/iiinuayy. in English, was discovered among Chagall's 
correspondence in the YIVO archives (New York City). It is reprinted 
with only minor spelling corrections. The original is not in the 
Weitzman archives in Rehovot. 

... I write to you as our fathers in Russia used to write to their 
Rabbis for help in solving problems of conscience. 

I have been asked to execute mural paintings in a 16th- 
century chapel in Vence, which is a historical, cultural, and 
religious center on the Riviera. I have not yet accepted. 

. . . Of course I shall be left entirely free to paint whatever I 
wish and if I accept I intend to do Biblical scenes such as 
appear in some of my paintings, strictly in my own manner 
and from my own point of view, symbolizing the suffering of 
the martyred Jewish people. 

To decorate a chapel might give me the chance to do work 
that is only possible on large walls, instead of having to limit 
myself to relatively small canvases destined to hang in private 
houses. To decorate walls in public buildings has long been my 
dream. If it were possible to decorate a synagogue my dream 
would be completely fulfilled. 

If I decide to decorate this chapel I would not want the 
people of Israel to think that in my heart or mind — not to 
speak of my art — I have anything in common with non- 
Judaism. With my ancestors I shall always be bound to my 

On a more temporal basis I do not know whether I should 
decorate a Catholic church at a time when the Vatican is not 
favorably disposed to Israel. At the same time, I wonder if the 
presence of a Jewish painting in a church might be good 
propaganda for our people. 

In other situations I have solved similar cases myself. I 
refused my friend Jacques Maritain's request to donate a 
picture to the Vatican's museum of modern art. I refused to 
exhibit in German museums after the war, in spite of the 
official invitation of the French Cultural Services. An 
exhibition that has recently taken place in DiAsseldorf was 
organized without my consent and consisted of pictures from 
German and Dutch collections. I refused to be present at the 
opening of my exhibition in London at a time when British 
policy was unfavorable to our interests. 

But today I have neither the strength nor the capacity to 
reply, and all the more because I have been asked to do work in 
other churches and in other towns. 

But with the renaissance, after 2,000 years, of the spiritual 
and political center of the Jewish people, I cannot help turning 
with ail my doubts toward its most eminent representative. 

A Word at the Celebration in Jerusalem 

Published in Di goldene keyt. no. 60 ( 196/). 

How did the air and earth of Vitebsk, my hometown, along 
with thousands of years of Diaspora, blend with the air and 
earth of Jerusalem? 

How could I have known that it was not only my hands and 
colors that would lead me in my work, but also the dear hands 
of my father and mother, and of others and yet others, with 
their mute lips and closed eyes, who whispered behind me as if 
they wanted to take part in my life? 

It seems to me that your tragic and heroic resistance 
movements in the ghettos, and your war here, in this country, 
have merged with my flowers and animals and fire-colors. . . . 

Insofar as our age refuses to see the whole figure of the 
world and is content with a very small part of its skin, my 
heart aches when I observe this figure in its eternal rhythm, 
and my will to go against the general stream is strengthened. 

It seems to me that the colors and the lines flow out, like 
tears from my eyes, though I am not crying. — And do not 
think I am talking here in a moment of weakness. On the 
contrary, the more years I pile up, the more certain I am of 
what I want and what I say. 

I know that my life's path is eternal and brief And I 
learned, back in my mother's womb, to walk that path more 
out of love than out of hatred. 

The thoughts have nested in me tor many years, since the 
time when my feet walked on the Holy Land, when I prepared 
myself to create engravings of the Bible. They strengthened me 
and encouraged me to bring my modest gift to the Jewish 
people — that people that lived here thousands of years ago, 
among the other Semitic peoples. 

And what is now called religious art I created when I 
recalled also the great and ancient creations ot the surrounding 
Semitic peoples. 

I hope that, thereby, I stretch out my hand to the 
neighboring peoples, their poets and artists, to whom human 
culture is dear. I saw the mountains of Sodom and the Negev, 
and the shadows of our Prophets, in their garb the color of 
dried bread, shine from those mountains. I heard their ancient 
words. . . . 

In their words they marked the path for behavior on the 
earth and pointed out the moral essence of our life. 

I draw hope and courage from the thought that my modest 
work will remain on their-your land. 

1 80 Texts and Documents 

Color, Which Is Love (A Word for America) 

P/ihl!shi'cl 111 Di _i;oklc'nc kcyc ihk $() ( 1964). 

My friend, Professor Neff, asked me to come to you, listen to 
you, and say a few words to you. 

In truth, I would have preferred to listen to you, for all my 
life I have preferred to listen to what others say, to learn 
something from them, as far as I can. 

Not for the first time do I come to you, for it seems to me 
that the idea of your association deserves much interest. 

Rationally, I should have stayed at work in my atelier, for 
this is the main goal of my life, when I am daring enough to 
hope that I work not just for myself But it is good to think 
that people in our time come together to share their thoughts 
about the main goals of life. 

What can be more moving in our society, on this planet, 
than the striving to listen to the human heart, to hear in it the 
pulse of a world, the sighs and the dreams. 

For hundreds and thousands of years, it was morally easier 
for a man to live. He had this or that moral ground, deeply 
anchored in himself. His life and his creative activity were the 
deep and precise result of his world view. We see it clearly 
sealecf in the works of distant epochs of the past. 

Gradually, however, in the course of time, those old 
conceptions became powerless to inspire a living breath in 
people and fill them with an internal life, not only for their 
creativity but simply for their life. 

I am not sad at all when I speak about it, and I'm not a 
pessimist. Forces do not exist that could influence me to 
believe no longer in the human personality, for I believe in 
general in the greatness of nature. But I also know that human 
will and human behavior often result from cosmic influences of 
that nature, just like the unfolding of history and human 
destiny. Yet we cannot refrain from always asking the same 
question: why are we so sad in recent years? 

The more boldly man liberates himself from his chains, the 
more man feels alone, and among the masses he is left alone 
with his destiny. 

As always, however, I shall shift to art. 

With Impressionism, a window opened for us. A bright 
rainbrow rose on the horizon of our world. And though this 
world was different and more intensively colored, it seems to 
me that, on the whole, it was narrower than the Naturalistic 
world of Courbet, for example. Just as the Naturalism of 
Courbet was, in his time, narrower than the world of 
Romanticism of Delacroix. And the world of Delacroix was 
more declamatory and narrower than the Neoclassical world of 
David and Ingres. I don't want to go on. . . . 

After Impressionism came the Cubist world, which led us 
into the geometrical underground of things. Afterward, 
abstraction led us into a world of tiny elements and matter. 
Thus we see the diapason and the size of the stage growing 
narrower and narrower. Going on, you have the impression that 
you are going toward a constantly progressive shrinking. What 
did happen? Let us see what is authentic in our life-baggage. 

The world belongs to us from the moment we are born, and 
it seems to us that we are prepared for it from the very 
beginning of our life. 

For about two thousand years, a reservoir of energy has 
nourished us, supported us, given us a certain content in life. 
But in the last century, a crack has opened in that reservoir. 
And its elements have begun to fall apart. 

God, perspective, color, the Bible, form, lines, traditions, 
the so-called humanistic theories, love, loyalty, family, school, 
education, the Prophets, and Christ himself. 

Perhaps I was once skeptical? I made pictures topsy-turvy. I 
decapitated my characters, cut them to pieces, and in my 

paintings they hovered in the air. All this in the name of a 
different perspective, a different construction of paintings, and 
a different formalism. 

And gradually our world appeared to us as a small world 
where we small people hover in the air, grasping onto the small 
elements of our nature, until the moment when, through very 
small elements of nature, we approached the atom itself 

This so-called scientific control of nature — doesn't it limit 
the source of poetry, doesn't it empty the soul? Doesn't it 
deprive man of calm, even of purely physical rest? Doesn't all 
this deprive the organism of the moral concept of life and 

In recent years, I have often spoken about the chemistry, 
about authentic color, and about painterly matter as a 
barometer of authenticity. 

A particularly sharp eye can see that authentic color and 
authentic matter contain in themselves every technical 
possibility as well as moral and philosophical content. 

If there is a moral crisis, there is also a crisis of color, of the 
moral material, the blood, and of the elements of the word, of 
sound, of all the components of art and life as well. 

And even if you have mountains of color in a painting, if 
you see something there or not, if there are lots of words and 
sounds — it still means that the work is also authentic. 

In my opinion, the color and the matter of Cimabue itself 
stimulated an upheaval in the art of the Byzantine period. In 
the same way, another color of Giotto, also absolutely authentic 
— and I emphasize this word from a chemical point of view — 
stimulated a different moral and artistic upheaval. Just as later, 
it was done by Masaccio and others. . . . 

I repeat: it is not the world view that is a literary or 
symbolic issue, that brings this change, but the blood itself, a 
certain chemistry of nature, objects, and human concentration 
itself You can see the conception of this authenticity in all 

How was it born, how is it built up, this chemistry through 
which art is created, the true conception of the world and of 

It consists of elements of love and of a certain natural 
attitude, just as nature itself, which cannot stand evil, hatred, 
indifference. . . . 

If, for example, we are seized to the quick by the soul of the 
Bible, it is primarily because, even chemically, the Bible is the 
greatest work of art in the world, which includes the highest 
life-ideal on our planet. 

Let another chemical genius come, and humanity will 
follow him as a new world view, a new light in life. 

I don't pretend in these few words to reveal to you the 
various other values of our history. 

But those who think this chemistry can be found 
somewhere in scientific laboratories, in a factory, are mistaken; 
nor can you learn it in ateliers or from theories. 

No, it is in us, in our hands, in our souls; it is both inherent 
in us and the result of education. 

Not, however, to remain with general meditations, I will 
tell you what I am doing now: I intend to continue the biblical 
series planned for a building — not a church, not a museum, 
but a place for people seeking this new plastic spiritual content 
I talked about. It seems to me that there are people among us 
seeking it. Perhaps today you, tomorrow — others. . . . 

Though I don't sense in myself any philosophical mission, I 
cannot avoid sensing what currently stifles art and culture, and 
sometimes even life itself. 

On the other hand, precisely in a time of constant sapping 
of religiousness — not to go into the reasons for that — we 
must see how the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries 
up to now has been a weak reflection of scientific discoveries. 

Texts and Documents 181 

whereas, before this period, including the Renaissance, art 
always mirrored the religious spirit or, at least, illustrated the 
religiousness of its time. 

I cannot refrain from saying that art of a scientific nature or 
art for enjoyment's sake, like nourishment, is not a living 
value. Historically, such art may gradually wither. They say 
that a "good" man can be a bad artist. But there is not and 
never will be an artist who is not a great and indeed good man. 

I know that certain people today discredit nature. Atter 
Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin, there seems to be no genius who 
would reflect it. 

Today, it is common to avoid nature as far as possible; this 
looks to me like people who avoid looking into your eyes. I am 
afraid of it, and turn my gaze away from such people. 

Certain revolutionaries wanted, scientifically, to introduce 
order into the social and economic life of the world. But after a 
certain time, these scientific theories are contradicted in part 
by other theories. 

Perhaps the change in the social order, as well as in art, 
would have been more certain if it also emerged from our soul, 
not just from our head. If people read more deeply the writings 
of the Prophets, they could have found there some keys to life. 

Are there no other revolutionary methods aside from those 
we experienced? 

Is there no other basis for art aside from the decorative art 
to please, or the experimental art, or ruthless art that wants to 
scare others? It is childish to repeat the long-known truth: the 
world in all its domains will be saved only through love; 
without love it will gradually decline. 

If we could add love to the theoretical and scientific sources 
I spoke of, their result could have been more valuable and just. 

It seems to me that, in our atomic epoch, we are 
approaching certain boundaries. What boundaries? But we 
don't want to fall into that world abyss. 

I had to live for many years to see many mistakes in life, 
and to understand that it is easier to climb Mont Blanc than to 
change man. 

As for art, I often talked about color, which is love. 

Joyfully I think about young people among whom we hope 
to find a resonance. 

I think that you too think about the same things. 

And I love to dream that it won't be a voice crying in the 

May 1963 

On the First Day of War 

Letter to Di goldene keyt. Ftihlished in Di goldene keyt, no. 60 

"Would that I were younger, to leave my paintings and brushes, 
and go, fly together with you — with sweet joy to give up my 
last years. 

I have always painted pictures where human love floods my 

Day and night I dreamed that something would change in 
the souls and relationships of people. 

I have always thought that, without human or biblical 
feelings in your heart, life has no value. Now the Semitic 
nations have arisen, jealous of our hard-earned piece of bread, 
our burning national ideal, our national soil. They want to 
show that, like other nations, they are also anti-Semites. They 
want to choke us as did the Pharoahs of old. But we crossed the 
sea of the ghettos, and our victory was eternalized in the 
{Passover} Hagada. 

We now stand before the great world trial of the human 
soul: will all dear visions and ideals of two thousand years of 
human world culture be blown away with the wind? 

History again puts the torch and sword in our hand, for the 
world to tremble when it hears our prophetic voice of justice. 

Thousands and thousands of simple people here and 
everywhere are with you. Only "leaders" with no heart are with 
our enemies. 

Perhaps I am of an age to bless you, and, instead of crying, 
to comfort you. 

I want to hope that the land of the great French Revolution, 
the land of Zola, Balzac, Watteau, Cezanne, Baudelaire, 
Claudel, Peguy, will soon raise its voice to stop the world 

I hope that America with its democracy, the land of 
Shakespeare, and also the land of Dostoevskii, Moussorgskii — 
the land of my birth — will begin to scream that the world 
must stop its "manners " and give the people of Israel one 
chance — to live free and create freely in its own land. 

Anyway, no one will be able to create freely anymore if the 
nations let their consciences go to sleep. The last drop of talent 
will evaporate and their words will remain hollow. 

To let Israel and the Jews be choked — means to kill the 
soul of the whole biblical world. 

No new "religion" can be created without this drop of the 
heart's blood. And we will see if we are worthy of continuing 
to live or of being destroyed by the atomic bomb. 

My word of consolation is in my eyes, which you cannot see 

And my blessings are embossed in my windows of the 
Twelve Tribes, now hidden in Jerusalem. . . . 

June 6, 1967 

1 82 Text!, and Document!, 

About the Yiddish Poet Elkhonon Vogler 

Published ill iyi go\dtntktyi. ho. 6oil^6/). \iigler { igoy-1969) 
emerged as a poet in Vilna in the ip^os and lived in Paris after World 
War II. This was written on the occasion of the publication ofVogler's 
book Spring on the Highway. 

For hundreds of years in cities and shtetls, on streets and 
squares, in houses and schools, your language has been heard. 

Sky and clouds, fields and forests have listened to your 

Our fathers and mothers cried their lives out in Yiddish. 

In heder, with the rebbe, the flies dashed to the window, 
begged, shuddered — when we children repeated Yiddish 

And you stood at a distance, and saw it all painted and 
registered it close up. 

The world finally perceived that all the cities and shtetls it 
destroyed have remained only in our dreams, paintings, and 

Our foes wanted to put a candle at our head as at the head 
of a dead person; they assumed we would stop singing and 
painting, we would not even have any more tears to weep. 

Our house of wood and bricks is destroyed, but not the 
Jewish people. And there is no force in the world that would 
prevent us from believing in miracles. 

And you, Yiddish poet and artist, know that new cities and 
shtetls, new parents, dear and our own, descend to us as from 
Jacob's Ladder. 

As great as your genius — so great is the miracle. As pure 
as your paint and your word — so great is your world. 

And if you weep — they are tears of joy and creation. 

Our streets of Vitebsk and Vilna arise somewhere else — in 
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They arise in our hearts and wherever 
the Jewish truth, the human truth, lives free. 

May our spirit be strong and clear, holy as the music of our 
books, as the look of a child, may we be able to go our own 
way which has been, from the beginning, both a Jewish and a 
human way. 

On the Death of Elkhonon Vogler 

Published in Di g(jiucriL- Kcyt. rio. 06 < Ip6p). 

It may be late or not too late to express my grief at the death of 
poor Elkhonon Vogler. Why poor? After all. he was a genuine 
Yiddish poet, but so lonely among Jews. 

A stranger to others and perhaps even to himself. 

How many times did I want to make him happy — and I 
didn't know how. I tried to make a few drawings for his book 
and I don't even know if the book appeared. 

Everything around him was delayed. He didn't know how 
to recover. Deep in me lies a thought that he made a mistake: 
he didn't go to Israel, at least for a short time — to draw 
another strength from there. 

His poetry was without beginning and without end, as 
genuine poetry must be (and all that in Vilna — harder in 

To whom shall I convey my grief' He had no family of his 
own. I send my grief to all of you. 

Texts and D<ku ' 


Speech at the Unveiling of the Tapestries in the 
Knesset in Jerusalem 

Published in Di goldene kevT:. no. 66 ( 1969). 

Over tort}- years ago, I was invited by the French publisher 
VoUard to paint motifs of the Bible. Then, I was confused: I 
didnt know how to begin the work. I was so far trom the 
biblical spirit, in a strange land. . . . 

Fortunately for me, the Mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, 
appeared before me like a flving angel. He invited me to come 
to Eretz Israel. Since then, I have grown close to the land and 
have created on biblical motifs; since then, I am newborn; I 
have become a different person. It is difficult for me to explain 
it in words. Why? I only know that, since then, I have always 
had the desire to express signs of devotion, however and 
whenever I can. 

I have made many voyages through the land. And even,- 
time, it meant an even-greater closeness; and here and there I 
left a sign of it. 

Finally, I am in the new building of the parliament of Israel 
in Jerusalem — the Knesset — on its floor and on its walls; I 
am in the Knesset with its dear Speaker Kaddish Luz, who has 
so inspired me. 

But it is not for me to talk about myself and my work. My 
goal, as 1 said, was to get closer to the land, to the biblical 
homeland of the Jewish people, to the land where there is an 
understanding of life and a right to life — a creation in the 
spirit of that which hovers over evers* page of the Bible and 
hovers here in the air, in the fields, in the sky, and in the souls 
of the inhabitants. When the world, including our so-called 
"foes" (who are rather their own foes), understands this; when 
the world feels this — a new peace will come, as envisaged by 
our Prophets. But, in the meantime, the reality is tragic: the 
vision of peace is still a mirage. 

Art of genius and its luminaries are so rare. . . . People 
prefer to be content with evil and injustice rather than to 
clutch onto love. 

I pit}- our enemies, who waste their time and their lives on 
b)^ways and tr\- to burst through closed doors that are actually 
open. The straight road and the key to the doors is love, which 
is sown here at ever}- step by our forefathers, by the people who 
returned here two thousand years later, from all the ghettos; 
returned to live with a renewed love and brotherhood with the 
surrounding Semitic peoples. 

From my whole heart, I would call to friend and non-friend, 
whose soul is shining, to open their eyes and stretch out a hand 
to give content to our short life, elevate our life, and create at 
the height of the genius of nature. 

Some may not understand my fragmented words, but 
perhaps you will sense the pulse of life throbbing in them and 
the breath of truth permeating them: that our would-be 
enemies would reject their weapons of annihilation, for they 
destroy first of all their own souls. 

My voice echoes the voices of my parents and forefathers: 
the world must listen to the voice of that people who gave 
content to life — and thereby the world will endow itself with 

There is no art or creation in a life without love. Love lives 
in this land, and even,-thing that comes with love is great and 

Let my work here, whatever it may be, serve as an 
expression of my soul's devotion to the land — this land of 
justice and biblical f>eace. 

Letter to the President of Israel 

Published HI Di goldene kc\ c. 110. 66 ( Ip6p). 

Dear friend Zalman Shazar, 

You have to be a Shakespeare or a poet of our Bible to be able 
to express what I would like to tell vou — 

Fate put you at the head of our biblical land — todav when 
humanity wants even less to recognize our spirit and right to 
life — 

1 kiss you and wish you and all of Israel happiness — to live 
through and live to see. 

Marc Chagall 

August 1969 

1 84 Texts and Documents 

Poems by Chagall 

With the exception of "My Land, " the following poems were translated 
from the original Yiddish. "Bella" is translated from a manuscript 
found in the Joseph Opatoshu archive at YIVO (New York City). It 
has also been published, in Yiddish, in I. E. Ronch. The World of 
Marc Chagall (Los Angeles, 1967). All others have been published, in 
Yiddish, in Di goldene keyt, Tel Aviv, no. 60 (ip6y). Some titles are 
Chagall's own. others were given by A. Sutzkever. 

"And now, in conclusion — since I am among poets — allow 
me to become a bit of a poet for a moment and read you a few 
of my poems, which I stray into from time to time. 

"You must not be amazed that an artist writes poems, for in 
the past, some artists, very great ones like Michaelangelo, 
Leonardo da Vinci, Delacroix, wrote poems and prose, as well 
as, recently, Gauguin and van Gogh, and, in our time, Picasso 
and others." 

Marc Chagall 

(from the Joseph Opatoshu archive, YIVO) 

Texts and Documents I 185 

My Land 

Trcinslated from Russian and Yiddish manuscripts found in the 
Sutzkever archive. Chagall noted that the Yiddish is a translation 
from the Russian, but. comparing the two versions, it is difficult to 
determine ivhich came first. "Aljy Land' has no rhymes in either 
language, whereas all of Chagall s other Yiddish poems are rhymed. 
The title is written on the Russian version, in Chagall's hand, in 

My Old Home (Autobiographical Poem) 

Originally published, simultaneously, in Tsukunft. New York. vol. 
i6. no. 12 (December ip^y). ^^W Literarishe bleter, Warsaw, no. g 
(February 2$. ipjS). Chagall s manuscript for the Tsukunft version is 
in the YIVO archive (New York City). In both the manuscript and 
the Tsukunft version, the strophes of the last two parts are confused, 
and two are omitted. This translation is from the Litcrarishe bleter 

Only that land is mine 

That lies in my soul. 

As a native, with no documents, 

I enter that land. 

It sees my sorrow 

And loneliness. 

Puts me to sleep 

And covers me with a fragrance-stone. 

Gardens are bloommg inside me. 
My flowers I invented. 
My own streets — 
But there are no houses. 

They have been destroyed since my childhood. 
Their inhabitants stray in the air, 
Seek a dwelling, 
They live in my soul. 

That's why I smile sometimes 
When the sun barely glimmers, 
Or I cry 
Like a light rain at night. 

There was a time 

When I had two heads. 

When both faces were covered with a film of love 

And evaporated like the scent of roses. 

Now I imagine 

That even when I walk back 

I walk forward — 

Toward high gates, 

Beyond them, walls are strewn about, 

Where worn-out thunders sleep. 

And broken lightning 

Paris 1946 

(The date is changed, in Chagall's hand, from ip4y to 1946.) 

It rings in me — 

The distant city. 

The white churches, 

The synagogues. The door 

Is open. The sky is blooming. 

Life flies on and on. 

It yearns in me — 

The crooked streets, 

Gray tombstones on a mountain. 

Deep lie the pious Jews. 

In colors and c4aubs. 

In light and shadow. 

My picture stands at a distance. 

I want to cover my heart with it. 

I walk flowing and flaming. 

The years flash. 

My world comes to me in a dream — 

I am lost. 

Don't look for me today, don't look for me tomorrow. 
I have run away from myself. 
I will make a grave for myself 
And will melt in tears. 


I imagine I see my father 
Lying far away in the earth. 
All night long he prayed. 
He threw off all earthly things, 
A cold sword slew him. 

In synagogue, you waited for miracles, 
A bitter tear would fall on your beard. 
From the depths of your heart you cried a word 
To Abraham and Isaac, to sweet Jacob. 

In the sweat of your brow you toiled all your life, 
The weeping was the weeping of your hands. 
Pale and mute, you fed us all — 
Your children in the poor four walls. 

You left me a legacy — 
Your old, evaporated smell. 
Your smile flows in all my senses. 
Your strength moved into me. 

My dead mother hovers in the air, 
Barely breathing, crying alone. 
"Where is my son, what is he doing now. 
Once I rocked him in his trough. 
May his path be blessed and pure. 

1 86 Texts and Doci/mcnts 

"In travail I carried him, nursed him, 
He sucked my first strength. 
I taught him to say the She'iiui at bedtime, 
I led him by the hand mto the world. 

"Where are you now, my son? 
You're in my memory. 
Deep inside me sleeps a starry night, 
Quietly it closed my eyes." 

Only bones remained of you. 
The young beauty is no more. 
You lie alone among stones, 
You abandoned me here. 

I would have kissed your sand and grass. 
Like your stone I would have cried. 
I would have left my soul to you 

And crowned you as a queen. 

My old Rebbe's head is Hying 

Toward me with regards: 

"I gave you my To rah, 

You will not set foot in my home again." 

No more my teacher with his brush, no more his little beard. 

A robber killed him for two cents. 

A black horse carried him away 

To the other world through the gate. 

His lamp went out. 

A cloud peeps into his home. 

Facing it, like a dolt. 

Stands the church, bolted shut. 

Your Jewish painting in the mud 
A pig's tail daubed it over — 
My teacher, I'm sorry 
I left you long ago. 

Let your name be mentioned, David, 
My young brother is deceased. 
Left life with no honor 
And no one knows where he lies. 

My sisters laugh and cry. 
They stand together in the door, 
Look for something in the window 
And seek happiness forever. 

An old house with no window, 
Inside it is dark at night. 
I came out first 
And stretched out my hand. 

I see the river, the cool water. 
At dusk, I walk to its bank. 
It flows into me a prayer 
Singing in calm, in the abyss. 

You walk with your long hair, 
With love, trembling, toward me. 
You bestow on me a pair of eyes. 
And I always want to ask vou: 

Where are my white flowers 
From our khi/pa on the roads? 
For the first time I came to you, 
The whole night I lay with you. 

We put out the moon 
And ignited white candles. 
My love flowed to you 
And opened your face. 

You became a wife to me. 

For long years, as sweet as almonds, 

Your belly gave me a gift — 

A daughter pretty as a new year. 

Thank you, God from the Ark of the Covenant, 

For that day and in that month. 


Oh, descend, my white cloud 
And raise me up to you! 
I hear the bells ring down below 
And smoke rises from the houses. 

My mouth wants to say a word 
To them, covered in snow. 
As long as my breath carries me. 
My soul will be with them. 

Did you forget me, my city? 
Your water flows in my body. 
On your benches, I sat 
And waited for my calling. 

Where houses stand crooked. 
And a road leads to the graveyard. 
Where a river overflows its banks — 
I dreamed my days. 

At night an angel flies in the sky. 
Flashing the roofs with white. 
He tells me from far away: 
He will exalt my name. 

I sang to you, my people. 
Who knows if you like my song. 
A voice rises from my lungs 
And makes me sad and weary. 

I made my paintings from you, 
The flowers, forests, houses, people. 
Like a wild man, I paint your face 
And day and night, I want to bless you. 

I painted the bright walls, 

The klezmers, dancers on the stage. 

With colors blue, red, yellow, 

I adorned them like the Holy Spirit. 

You played, sang and frolicked. 

You played an old king. 

You played with me and swallowed me. 

It was a jolly caper. 

The moon comes over 
From that land to me, a guest. 
A red flag waves to me. 
I wake up on our street. 

Texts and Doaiment$ 1 87 

The world there is renewed. 
Families, close and far, 
Made a wedding without me. 
Winds blow from there. 

I hear the voices from afar 
Of people crowding together in joy. 
They possessed a life, liberated 
With hot rifles and with words. 

I want to eternalize your wish. 

To engrave a new truth. 

Of life, let art remain — 

The sound of thunder and lightning. 


Oh, crawl out of deep graves. 
Aunts, uncles, grandfathers. 
You are free citizens, congratulations! 
I am your witness from afar. 

You are silent, my homeland. 

Do you want my heart to break? 

Shall I beg on bended knee for my days? 

Should a fire boil inside me. 

Should I leave you all I have? 

I will send you my dreaming blood. 
My breath will gradually drip like tears. 
The air will sway blue 
And I will lie quietly at the fence. 

Are you, my homeland, angry at me? 
I am open to you like water in a bottle. 
Long ago, you hurled me into the distance, 
I will come to you to sleep forever 
And you will cover my grave with ash. 


My people, poor people, you have no more tears. 
No cloud walks before us, no star. 
Our Moses is dead. He has long been lying in sand. 
He brought you to our land and exiled you from it. 

Our last prophets are silent, mute. 
They have shouted out their throats for you. 
You no longer hear the melody of those songs 
Flowing from their mouth like a river. 

Everyone wants to break your tablets in your heart, 

Trample your truth and your God. 

A guilty world wants to sap your strength 

And leave you a place only in the earth. 

They pursue, they beat my people from all sides. 

Its crown is falling. 

Its Star of David is falling. 

Where is its light? 

Where is its honor? 

My people rends the scarlet sky. 
Hurls its exile down to the ground. 
A lightning burns its old mold. 
It runs at it with a sword. 

And if you have to be destroyed 

For old sins of the last Destruction, 

In your place, perhaps, another star will rise. 

Doves will fly out of your eyes. 

1 88 Texts and Documents 

My Tears 

My tears fall like stones, 
Melt and flow into a river, 
Float like flowers on the water, 
Thus I live, my God. Why? 

I live and I breathe. 

I seek you, I seek. 

For you are with me 

And far from me, my God. Why? 

I hear no word around me. 
Roads and forests crisscross. 
I begin my day with a smile 
And wait for you, God. Why? 

I bear the cross every day. 

Pushed and led by the hand. 

Night grows dark around me. 

Have you forsaken me, my God? Why? 

I am your son. 

Born on the earth to crawl. 

You put paint and brush in my hand — 

I don't know how to paint You. 

Should I paint the earth, the sky, my heart? 
The cities burning, my brothers fleeing? 
My eyes in tears. 
Where should I run and fly, to whom? 

There is someone who gives us life. 
There is someone who gives us death — 
He could have helped me, 
To make my painting bright with joy. 

My hour, my day, my last year. 
How sweet is my hot tear. 
My heart is silent, waiting. 
I see the sun flowing above — 
Covering my face with red beams. 

It promises me consolation: 
I shall not shed more tears, 
I shall go along with my luck. 
My hope hidden deep inside me. 
And hear your distant call. 

Texts and Documents 1 89 

In Lisbon Before Departure 

A wall grows up between us, 
A mountain covered with grass and graves, 
The hand that creates paintings and books 
Has separated us. 

Have you ever seen my face — 

In the middle of the street, a face with no body? 

There is no one who knows him, 

And his call sinks into an abyss. 

I sought my star among you, 
I sought the far end of your world, 
I wanted to grow stronger with you, 
But you fled in fear. 

How shall I tell you my last word, 
You — when you are lost. 
I have no place on earth 

And let the tears dry out. 
And let the name on my stone be wiped out. 
And I, like you, will become a shadow. 
Melt like smoke. 


1 90 Texts and Dncumenta 

On the Ship 

I came ro the sliip, 
Told you farewell — 
You took over my earth, 
The graves on the river. 

But you wiped out my grief. 
Veiled my home from me, 
Opened a new page for me, 
Revealed a new land. 

Don't leave me adrift in mid-sea. 
Where hordes of weary brothers, pitiless. 
Reminded me of my pedigree and my race. 

Let my road stretch without menace — 
How shall I bless you, my God, 
And on what day shall 1 fast? 

Texts and Documents I 191 

The Vilna Synagogue 

The old ihiil, the old street, 
I painted them just yesteryear. 
Now smoke rises there, and ash 
And the parokhet is lost. 

Where are your To rah scrolls? 

The lamps, menoras, chandeliers? 

The air, generations filled with their breath? 

It evaporates in the sky. 

Trembling, I put the color, 

The green color of the Ark of the Covenant. 

I bowed in tears, 

Alone in the shi/l — a last witness. 

1 92 Texts and Documents 

Jacob's Ladder 

I walk in the world as in a woods. 
On my hands and feet do 1 crawl. 
Every tree sheds its leaves, 
They wake me. 1 am scared. 

I paint my world as sleeping in a dream; 

And when the woods are filled with snow, 

My painting is from another world. 

But for a long time, I alone stand on it and stand. 

I stand and wait tor a miracle to embrace me from afar. 
To warm my heart and drive out my tremor, 
I wait for you to come to me from all sides. 

And I shall stand no more, but fly — 
And rise with you on Jacob's Ladder. 

Texts and Documents 1 93 

The Painting 

It only my sun had shone at night. 
I sleep — steeped in colors, 
In a bed of paintings, 
Your foot in my mouth 
Presses me, tortures me. 

I wake up m pain 

Of a new day, with hopes 

Not yet painted, 

Not yet daubed with paint. 

I run up 

To my dry brushes, 

And I'm crucified like Jesus, 

With nails pounded in the easel. 

Am I finished? 

Is my picture done? 

Everything shines, flows, runs. 

Stop, one more daub. 
Over there — black paint, 
Here — red, blue, spread out, 
Calmed me. 

Can you hear me — my dead bed, 
My dry grass, 

My departed love. 
My new come love,' 
Listen to me. 

I move over your soul, 

Over your belly — 

I drink the calm of your years. 

I swallowed your moon. 
The dream of your innocence, 
To become your angel. 
To watch you as before. 

I. An allusion to Virginia Haggard. 

1 94 Texts and Dncuments 

Your Call 

I do not know if I lived. I don'r l<now 
If I am alive. I watch the sky, 
I don't recognize the world. 

My body sets toward night. 
Love, the flowers in paintings — 
They call me back and forth. 

Don't leave my hand without light 

When my house is dark. 

How will I see your shine in the whiteness? 

How will I hear your call 
When I remain alone in my bed 
And cold and calm is my body. 

Texts and Documents 1 95 

Bella: On the Fourth Anniversary of her Death 

Your white dress swims over you, 
My flowers untouched, 
Your stone ghmmers, gets wet, 
I get gray as ash. . . . 

Today, like yesterday, I ask you: 

Are you staying here, are you following behind me? 

See — my steps swathed in tears. 

What are you saying to me? I want to listen. 

"... As red as our Kh/tpa, 

So is our love for our people and our homeland, 

Go and wake them up with our dream 

"How green the fields lie on my body. 
Every night the stars wink at me. 
So you will someday return to me." 

August i6, 1948 

1 96 Texts and Documents 

For the Slaughtered Artists 

Did I know them all.-' Did I visit 

Their atelier? Did I see their art 

Close up or from afar? 

And now I walk out of myself, out of my years, 

I go to their unknown grave. 

They call me. They pull me into their grave — 

Me, the innocent, the guilty. 

They ask me: Where were you? 

— I fled 

They were led to the baths of death 

Where they knew the taste of their sweat. 

Then they saw the light 

Of their unfinished paintings. 

They counted the unlived years. 

Which they cherished and waited tor 

To fulfill their dreams — 

Not slept out to the end, overslept. 

In their head, they sought and found 

The nursery where the moon, circled 

With stars, promised a bright future. 

The young love in the dark room, in the grass, 

On mountains, hi valleys, the chiseled fruit. 

Doused in milk, covered with flowers 

Promised them paradise. 

The hands of their mother, her eyes 

Accompanied them to the train, to the ciistant 


I see: now they drag along in rags. 

Barefoot on mute roads. 

The brothers of Israels, Pissarro and 

Modigliani, our brothers — they are led 

With ropes by the sons of Diirer, Cranach 

And Holbein — to death in the crematoria. 

How can I, how should I, shed tears? 

They have been soaked in brine — 

The salt of my tears. 

They were dried out with mockery. Thus I 

Lose my last hope. 

How should I weep. 

When every day I heard: 

They tear the last board off my roof. 

When I am too tired to make war 

For a piece of earth where I remain, 

Where I will later be laid to sleep. 

I see the fire, the smoke and the gas 

Rising to the blue cloud. 

Turning it black. 

I see the torn-out hair and teeth. 

They overwhelm me with my rabid 


I stand in the desert before heaps of boots, 

Clothing, ash and dung, and mumble my 


And as I stand — from my paintings 
The painted David descends to me, 
Harp in hand. He wants to help me 
Weep and recite chapters 
Of Psalms. 

After him, our Moses descends. 
He says: Don't fear anyone. 
He tells you to lie quietly 

Until he comes again to engrave 
New tablets for a new world. 
The last spark dies out. 
The last body vanishes. 
Quiet as before a new deluge. 
I stand up and say farewell to you, 
I take the road to the new Temple 
And light a candle there 
Before your image. 


Texts and Documents 1 97 

To Israel 

Should I pray to God, Who led my people to the fire, 
Or should I paint Him in image of flame? 
Should I get up from my place a new Jew 
And go fight along with my race? 

Should my eyes lament without a halt, 
So the tears drown in a river? 
I won't let my grief approach 
When I swim to your shore. 

And when my weary foot gropes on the sand — 
I shall lead my bride by the hand. 
For you to see her — the holy bride in the sky, 
As I will dream with her our last dream. 


1 98 Texts and Documents 

The Ship 

Two thousand years — my Exile, 

My land is just a few years old. 

Young as my son David. 

I crawl on my knees with spread-out hands 

And seek the stars and the Magen-David. 

The Prophets swim past me, 

Moses shines to me from afar. 

I have long been enraptured by his beams 

And by the wind blowing from him. 

All those years I counted the tears, 
Sought you in the sky, on the earth, 
Two thousand years have I waited 
For my heart to calm down and see you. 

Like Jacob, I lay sound asleep, 
I dreamed a dream: 
An angel raises me on a ladder, 
Extinguished souls sing around me. 

About the new land Israel, 

About two thousand years of our Exile, 

And about David — my son. 

They sang sweeter than Mozart and Bach 

When will you come, my hour, 
When I shall go out like a candle. 
When will I reach you, my distant one. 
And when will my rest come? 

I don't know it I'm walking, 

I don't know who I am, 

I don't know where I stand. 

My head and my soul — where they are. 

Look, my dear mother. 

At your son going down. 

Look, my dear crown, 

How quiet and deep my sun sets. 


Texts and Documents ! 1 99 


B tnjai)ii}i Ha i ■sIm i ■ 

Abramovitsh, Dina. "Marc Chagall's Memoirs of his Youth in 
Tsukunft and his Letters to A. Lyesin" (in Yiddish). Ts//knnft, 
vol. 95 (1988), nos. 5-8, pp. 58-63. 

. "Marc Chagall" (in Yiddish). Tsiiknuft, vol. 95 (1988), 

nos. 9-12, pp. 123-28. 

Alexander, Sidney. Marc Chagall: An Intimate Biography. 
New York: Paragon House, 1989. 

Al'tman, Natan. "The State Yiddish Chamber Theater 
(After the Premiere)" (in Yiddish). Der Ernes, Sept. 29, 1921. 

Al'tman, Natan, Marc Chagall, and David Shterenberg. Knltur- 
Lige. Moscow: Kultur-Lige, 1922. 

Amiard-Chevrel, Claudine. Le Theatre arthtique de Moscon 
(1898-1917) (The Moscow Art Theater [1898-1917]). Paris: 
Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1979. 

Amishai-Maisels, Ziva. "Chagall's Jewish \n-]okes." Jo//rnal oj 
Jewish Art, vol. 5 (1978), pp. 76-93. 

. "Chagall and the Jewish Revival: Center or 

Periphery?" In Ruth Apter-Gabriel, ed.. Tradition and 
Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant Garde Art 

. "Chagall's Murals for the Jewish State Chamber 

Theater." In Christoph Vitali, ed., Marc Chagall: The Russian 
Years: 1906-1922. 

Antonova, Irina, Andrei Voznesenskii, and Marina Bessonova. 
Chagall Discovered imns. from the Russian by John Crowfoot 
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204 I BMidgraphy 


Gregory VeUsman 

During the fifteen years that I worked at the State Tret'iakov 
Gallery, in Moscow, I participated in and witnessed many 
interesting events, including the visit of Marc Chagall in 1973. 
As Assistant Director for Technical Services and a member of 
the Directorate I was involved in every aspect of the museum's 

I was fortunate to work with a group of remarkable people, 
genuine experts of the old school, such as E. V. Silversvan, 
A. N. Svirin, S. I. Bitiutskaia, and others, who spent their 
entire careers at the museum. They passed down to the next 
generation those special curatorial skills that helped us to save 
and preserve great works of art, including Chagall's murals of 
1920 for the State Jewish Chamber Theater, in Moscow. Those 
canvases were kept rolled up and hidden in a storage space in 
what had once been an old church, adjoining the Tret'iakov 
building on Tolmachevskii Lane. In 1966, a small group, which 
included Director P. I. Lebedev, curator L. I. Romashkova, 
restorer A. P. Kovalev, V. M. Volodarskii, and myself, 
performed the so-called "secret" examination of Chagall's 
paintings. Room 45, which directly adjoined the church 
storeroom, was closed off and we unrolled and spread out the 
murals on the floor. I remember what a strong impression they 
made on us. I took measurements and then constructed special, 
large drums on which to roll the oversized murals in order to 
better preserve them. 

While we were examining them, Lebedev mentioned that it 
would be good to find someone who could read the paintings' 
Yiddish inscriptions. I almost jumped up to offer my services. 
Although I knew Yiddish, I had concealed this knowledge ever 
since a certain incident that occurred in the late 1950s during 
Khrushchev's "thaw." My brother and I were at the theater in 
Moscow's Zhuravlev Square, where the Jewish actress Anna 
Guzik was appearing. In the interval between acts a man 
sitting two rows in front of us pulled out a newspaper that was 
either in Hebrew or Yiddish. At that time the presence of a 
Jewish newspaper in Moscow was so unexpected and so 
improbable that we leaned slightly forward just to read its 
title. This gesture was enough for KGB agents to start 
following us. Although it was probably only someone from the 
Israeli consulate who had opened the newspaper, we were 
closely followed for three days and nights. After that I never 
revealed that I knew Yiddish. Thus, in 1966 (it was now the 
Brezhnev era) I resisted the temptation to read the inscriptions 
on Chagall's murals for my colleagues. Several months later, 
after the Arab armies, who were equipped by the Soviets, 
suffered a crushing defeat in the Six-Day War with Israel, the 
Kremlin geared up its propaganda machine in a desperate anti- 
Zionist campaign. Newspapers, magazines, television, and 
radio proclaimed the Zionists' subversive activities; numerous 
books about the threat of Zionism were published and printed 
in large runs. The tactics were designed to incite anti-Semitism 
and to put pressure on and demonstrate hostility toward Jews. 
The Soviets had kept silent about Chagall's existence since he 
had left Russia more than fifty years earlier. In the early 1970s, 
I came across Chagall's name in one of those contemptible 
books, among the names of those who had sympathized with 
Israel. He was identified as the "bard of Zionism. " 
In the spring of 1973, I was summoned to a meeting at the 
Ministry of Culture of the USSR, at which I was informed that 
Chagall himself was coming to Moscow and at which the 
mounting of some kind of exhibition during his visit was 
proposed. The head of the Department of Culture of the 
Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet 
Union, who was at the meeting, did not conceal his contempt 
when Chagall was mentioned. With the exception of its 
appearance in the anti-Zionist publication discussed above, his 
name, it seemed, had actually been forgotten until that time. 

Afterword \ 20 


Marc Chagall — surrounded by, from left to right. A. P. Kovalev, 
L. I. Romashkoi'a. Gregory Veitsman, V. M. Volodarskii. L. Lifshitz, 
and P. I. Lebedev — as he signed Introduction to the Jewish Theater 

,;// the State Tret'iakoi' Gallery in 1973. Photo courtesy Gregory 

206 Gregory Veitsman 

On June 5, rooms 17A and 17B were closed off from the rest 
of the museum, and an exhibition of sixty-three of Chagall's 
lithographs was hung. No announcement ot the day or time of 
his visit to the Tret'iakov had been made, but a crowd gathered 
in the side streets around the museum. Three rows of 
policemen prevented anyone from approaching Chagall. He, 
his wife Vava, and Nadia Leger were not brought in through 
the main gates but by a service entrance. They came up to the 
Director's study on the second floor for a champagne toast and 
then walked through the library to rooms 17A and 17B. Chagall 
went first, escorted by Minister of Culture E. A. Furtseva, 
Director Lebedev, and several other officials. With 'Vava 
holding my arm, she and I followed a few steps behind. 1 was 
observing Chagall, who was smartly dressed and looked 
magnificent. He seemed quite happy and excited and was 
cordial to all. "We went upstairs to the Repin room and then to 
the galleries where the lithographs were displayed. They were 
not even framed but under glass in cases that had been slapped 
together for the occasion. The entire viewing lasted only a very 
short time. It was packed with KGB agents; there were no 
members of the press present except for the Paris-Match 
correspondent, at Chagall's personal request. The sculptor 
I. M. Chaikov pushed his way through the crowd to me and 
started lamenting how quickly the years had flown by. He 
recalled the time of his youth when he and Chagall had worked 
and exhibited together in Berlin. We were waiting for the 
viewing to end when Chagall came over; a museum 
photographer captured the touching meeting of the two former 
students as I stood between them. When Chagall came to the 
museum again on June 8 to see the GOSEKT panels, I handed 
him the photograph, which he kindly signed with the date, 
"8/6 1973, " his name, "Chagall," in French, and the place, 
"Moscow," in Russian. 

On this second visit, Chagall seemed more at ease. The 
moment we entered room 21 (the Valentin Serov room), where 
all of Chagall's huge murals for the Jewish Theater were 
unrolled on the floor, he grew quiet; I saw delight and 
astonishment in his face. We — there were only a few people 
in the room — stood to one side while Chagall walked back 
and forth beside the painted canvases spread out on the floor, 
the works that he had created more than a half-century before. 
His eyes shone, and he was silent for a few minutes before 
saying something quietly to himself. Then he drew himself up 
proudly as if to communicate, "Look, / created this." He 
started to say something about how nice it would be to exhibit 
the murals, and that he was glad they were still together and 
had been so well preserved. After a short discussion it was 
decided he should sign the murals. Brushes and paint were 
brought in, along with a chair. Chagall sat down, laid a corner 
of a canvas on a drum, and began to sign them, not knowing 
which language it would be best to use, but finally deciding on 
Russian. Vava called to him from the other end of the room. 
Chagall, engrossed in his beloved murals, did not even hear, 
although he did say something to her like, "What a good artist 
I am." And then he began dreaming aloud about exhibiting 
them, displaying them there at the museum, in Russia. 
While glancing at Lebedev, who was maintaining a careful 
official expression, and then at one KGB agent and another 
KGB agent, I remembered the words in that anti-Zionist book 
calling Chagall the "bard of Zionism. " Indeed, the time when 
the murals for the Jewish Theater could be exhibited was 

The day after the departure of Chagall, who was hurrying 
back to France for the opening of the museum dedicated to 
him, we were obliged to take down everything connected with 
him and hide it in the storeroom once again. 

Many years later, in the early 1980s, I spoke with Marc and 

Vava at their home in St. Paul de Vence. He remembered every 
single detail about the visit to Moscow. He asked me if I 
remembered how Furtseva, the Minister of Culture, repeatedly 
asked him not to speak ill of the Soviet Union and the 
Communist government. With twinkling eyes, he said, "And 
why were they so certain that there was anything bad to say 
about them?" After a brief pause he continued, "Of course, 
they destroyed such a rich, beautiful Jewish culture." 
Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet empire were yet to come. 
I know how happy Chagall would have been to see the murals 
exhibited in New York. 

— Translated, from the Russian, by Judith Vowles 

Aftenivrd \ 20 

The Solomon R. 
Guggenheim Foundation 

Honorary Trustees in Perpetuity 

Solomon R. Guggenheim 
Justin K. Thannhauser 
Peggy Guggenheim 


Peter Lawson-Johnston 


The Right Honorable Earl Castle Stewart 
Wendy L-J. McNeil 
Robert M. Gardiner 


Thomas Krens 


The Right Honorable Earl Castle Stewart 

Mary Sharp Cronson 

Elaine Dannheisser 

Michel A. David-Weill 

Carlo De Benedetti 

The Honorable Gianni De Michelis 

Robin Chandler Duke 

Robert M. Gardiner 

Jacques Hachuel Moreno 

Rainer Heubach 

Barbara Jonas 

Thomas Krens 

Peter Lawson-Johnston 

Arthur Levitt, Jr. 

Wendy L-J. McNeil 

Edward H. Meyer 

Michael M. Rea 

Denise Saul 

William A. Schreyer 

James B. Sherwood 

Raja Sidawi 

Seymour Slive 

Peter W. Stroh 

Stephen C. Swid 

Rawleigh Warner, Jr. 

Jiirgen Weber 

Michael F. Wettach 

Donald M. Wilson 

William T Ylvisaker 

Honorary Trustee 

Claude Pompidou 

Trustee, Ex Officio 

Roberto Tronchetti Provera 

Director Emeritus 

Thomas M. Messer